Pre-Christmas gets underway as City welcome Rochdale at the start of a big week

This could be a pivotal week in Bradford City’s season.

A win against Rochdale this evening would place the Bantams on the cusp of the play offs, follow that up with a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of automatic. A defeat against Rochdale this evening would keep City wedged amongst the midtable traffic, follow that up with anything less than a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of manager Stuart McCall’s future.

A couple of weeks ago Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn likened City’s campaign to a pot of stew – “all the ingredients are in and we are simmering away. But now is the time we have to look to turn up the gas and bring it to the boil.” The temperature began to increase with the 3-0 success at Grimsby a week ago, a further two victories this week would see the vapour begin to rise. After Darlington, City have a week without a game before a busy Christmas period featuring six matches in three weeks. Often a critical phase of a campaign, this week’s target is to go into it in a strong position.

For now though the focus is firmly on Rochdale, who arrive at Valley Parade second in the league and with a string of impressive recent results. Keith Hill’s side has won 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth and triumphed 2-1 at fourth-placed Dagenham, who previously were unbeaten at home. They have defeated current play off occupants Bury and, last time out, Notts County at Spotland. They could go top with a victory tonight and, after two successive play off failures, look a strong bet to make it third time lucky and seal a first promotion since 1969.

As the likes of Accrington, Cheltenham, Burton and in the fact the Bantams can testify, the Dale are from invincible. But the impressive side built by Hill is well respected among City supporters for the attractive style of high tempo football and ability to mix it up with crafty counter attacking when required. Chris Dagnall already has 10 goals, Tom Kennedy is a classy attack-minded full back, Will Buckley a determined winger who tore Paul Arnison to pieces so badly last season the now-Darlington right back’s summer departure became inevitable.

Rochdale’s promise and fact it has wrecked City’s own promotion chances for two seasons in a row – plus the fact Dale’s manager, chairman and supporters appear to dislike the Bantams –  give this encounter the level of anticipation no other League Two club coming to Valley Parade can generate. How good is this Bradford City side? Tonight arguably offers the biggest indicator of the season’s prospects so far.

The line up to undertake the challenge is likely to unchanged side from the one which largely impressed at Blundell Park a week ago. Simon Eastwood’s rehabilitation continues in goal in front of a back four that will feature ex-Rochdale full back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien. Consistency of selection in defence has been a characteristic of Stuart’s managerial reign, for better or worse, and the fact the present incumbents collectively improved enough to keep a clean sheet at Grimsby will ensure Matt Clarke and Jon Bateson remain on the sidelines for now.

The midfield three will be Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien. The latter’s return at Grimsby made a clear difference and his corner deliveries have improved throughout the season, with the Irishman setting up a number of goals in recent weeks. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson will be back up, but how we long for the sight of Omar Daley taking a place on the bench. The Jamaican was due to play in the reserves last week before the game was called off, the next second string fixture is later this week. Stuart will be grateful the number of other injuries has reduced, thereby lessening the urgency of Daley’s long-awaited return.

The front three will probably be James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Simon Whaley. Michael Boulding is pushing hard for a start and the close-to-returning Peter Thorne still has a significant part to play, making the competition for striker positions fiercely competitive. Hanson’s strike record of seven goals from 18 starts is highly impressive. Evans is not far behind on five goals from 17, and will hope to rediscover his scoring touch after some recent bad misses. Whaley struck a memorable goal on his debut and, up against a side he was playing for just 17 days ago, has plenty of incentive to build on an impressive start.

As will a certain Rochdale forward. For the third game in a row City are lining up against a former striker and for the third game in a row that former striker has a point to prove. Chris O’Grady’s brief loan spell at Valley Parade last January was a curious one given many City supporters were so quick to turn on him and criticise Stuart for signing him. Many of those same supporters were, around the same time, demanding Stuart bring in a fourth striker to compete with Thorne, Boulding and Barry Conlon.

O’Grady’s scoring record before was impressive, and while he undoubtedly struggled to make an impact in the two sub appearances he made (he was recovering from an injury), I’ve never seen a player given so little time before being universally slagged off. Should O’Grady start and complete the game tonight, he will have more than doubled the time he spent on Valley Parade pitch than when he wore Claret and Amber – a whopping 39 minutes.

No doubt O’Grady will be booed by some, but such is the regularity of former players lining up against the Bantams this season the fear is not so much the law of the ex, but the law of averages which dictates whether he will have the level of influence on the outcome Steve Schumacher and Michael Symes have previously enjoyed, or what Barry Conlon and Graeme Lee endured.

But as Stuart will be telling his players in the dressing room prior to kick off, it’s what City do which counts. Tonight is a tremendous chance to take a step forward from constrained to capable, this week is a tremendous chance to upgrade the season’s hopes from reasonable to realistic.

In other words, it’s time for Stuart to serve up his stew.

It’s Here

The League Two season is back with a bang on Saturday as Bradford travel to Meadow Lane in a reverse of the opening fixture of last campaign. And for Bradford faithful still reeling from last season’s disappointment, this is all that matters. Forget the long running saga at Newcastle United with an untold number of messiahs. Forget Leeds United’s third season in the third flight of English football. And please, forget last season.

Stuart McCall decided to stay with the club this summer despite suggesting otherwise last term. Managing at a young age is always a learning curve and there isn’t a manager out there that hasn’t made mistakes at some time in their career. But in my opinion, this club and it’s fans would rather have somebody with a loved for the club at the helm taking it one step at a time, than a manager with no passion who will come and go within two seasons at the most. The fans have cried out and it appears that stability is the way forward.

McCall has been busy this summer with his dealings in the transfer market, with no less than twelve players departing, not including Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Nicky Law, and nine coming in. Only goalkeeper Simon Eastwood has so far come in on loan as McCall plays the waiting game with the clubs in higher divisions to see who is available following pre-season. Eastwood’s arrival at the club shocked many, with an experienced keeper expected to come in alongside Jonathan McLaughlin. Only time will tell if this turns out to be a bad decision, but it is telling that Eastwood’s contract is only until January rather than a full season, with McCall preparing himself should the opportunity to bring in somebody different arise. Quite who will be playing between the sticks for City also remains a mystery with Eastwood not doing himself any favours with a nervous display in the final pre-season game against Carlisle.

Zesh Rehman has made his move to Bradford permanent and has been rewarded with the club captaincy. Much has been made of Rehman’s work in the community following his loan move last season and it appears that the club see Rehman as the ideal role model for youngsters in the local area. At a time when club finances are tight and extra revenue is a priority, it will be a challenge for Rehman, along with Omar Khan, to influence the Asian population to make Valley Parade their second home.

Jonathan Bateson, Simon Ramsden and Steve Williams join Rehman as new signings in Stuart McCall’s new look back line. Ramsden in particular looks like he could be the solid right back that has been missing at Bradford for a while now, though Paul Arnison will feel disheartened that his efforts last season resulted in his exit from the club. When Arnison played last season, City tended to fair better defensively. The facts don’t lie. However, it was apparent that McCall was unsure about him with Tom Moncur and Zesh Rehman preferred at times in what was evidently not their strongest position. Ramsden looks composed, strong in the tackle and fairly good in the air. Add to this that he can also play in the centre and has featured regularly for Rochdale in three successful seasons by their standards and you can understand why McCall has brought him to the club.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson, dubbed The Co-op Kid (I prefer The Idle Working Man – Ed), have bolstered McCall’s striking options. Both are young and play with a real desire which is a joy to see. McCall has high hopes for both and this is supported by the clubs willingness to pay a fee to Macclesfield for Evans services. Hanson looks like he can offer height in the attack, in the absence of Barry Conlon, and comes to the club with a decent scoring record in the last two seasons. Experienced duo Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne are still with the club and both agreed to cut their wage bills accordingly, with Thorne rewarded for his loyalty by becoming team captain. Up front, City look a lot stronger this season and it may be a weight off Peter Thorne’s shoulders. Michael Boulding openly admitted his disappointment at his goal tally last season and will be expected to do better this time around.

Following a fluster of activity in the days before the season opener, Stuart McCall has brought in three central midfielders, an area which he was keen to improve on. The signs are that Michael Flynn, City’s second signing from Huddersfield this summer, will slot in alongside Lee Bullock to form what looks like a solid pairing. Flynn ranks alongside Simon Ramsden as McCall’s best signing in my opinion and his ability to score and create goals from midfield will fill the void left by Nicky Law. Michael O’Leary and energetic James O’Brien have also signed, albeit on short term contracts. Luke Sharry missed the chance this pre-season to stake his claim for a place in the team and may now find himself the odd man out with many feeling Chris Brandon is also above him in the pecking order.

Omar Daley’s absence may be missed, with City only having the aforementioned Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osbourne to turn to on the wings. Arguably Rory Boulding, Gareth Evans, Michael O’Leary and Luke Sharry can all play in this position too, but City do look thin in this department. Rumours of a loan move for a winger from an unnamed SPL club allay fears somewhat though undoubtedly Daley’s comeback will be in the back of everyone’s mind. Osbourne has looked impressive this pre-season and looks ready to make the step up to first team duties. Chris Brandon will be looking to make up for a torrid season last time round and will be a very important player for City should he stay free from injury.

When you thought things couldn’t get anymore unpredictable, Sven-Goran Eriksson appeared at Notts County and shook the football world to the core (or League Two at least). His arrival at Meadow Lane marks one of the most bizarre appointments in history and mounts the expectation on County to achieve things in the short term. Ian MacParland’s job will be under scrutiny with the media circus that unmistakably follows such a high profile appointment. In the last few days, Stuart McCall has claimed he is not envious of the position County find themselves in, words which as a fan I cannot help but agree with. Clubs in the situation Notts County now find themselves have the potential for success, but also dramatic failure. Should County fail to gain promotion this season, they will probably find themselves starting from scratch with a new manager and possibly a whole new team next term. It is once again easy to see why fans at this club, who have suffered the repercussions of bad decision making by the money men in the past, strive for stability and a realistic approach.

Last season’s skipper Graeme Lee will probably be coming toe to toe with former team mates and, unfortunately, may receive a hostile reception. The culture of booing ex-players and managers is one that I’ve never understood, though there are factors in some cases. It is understandable that a Crystal Palace fan would be annoyed at the sight of Iain Dowie, not for the obvious reason, but for the way in which he departed the club to become manager of Crystal Palace. Lee, however, put in some solid displays last season, though he did have a dip of form which coincided with the teams inability to win games and keep clean sheets. Nevertheless, any players that represents our club should have our support and his departure was not turbulent and instead was a financial decision. It must be hoped that his exit from the club will suit both parties, with Lee himself wishing the team luck in the coming season. I will leave the defence of Lee Hughes to somebody braver than myself.

How the tables have turned from this time last season when County came to Valley Parade and suffered at the hands of a superb solo performance from Peter Thorne. The City captain has a tendency to score against County, something Graeme Lee may be given the duty of preventing happening on Saturday. I would be happy with an opening day draw in all honesty, but the optimism of the travelling Bradford fans says otherwise. City are out to ruin the party celebrations for Sven’s men are will make themselves heard – win, lose or draw.

The new season is here.

The route to success for Notts County or Bradford City

When last we kicked a ball in anger there was anger after the Bantams promotion push had fizzled out and beating Chesterfield was an inglorious end to a year of promise.

Three months later and while it seems that much has changed the Bantams start the season with six players who would have featured in the team which kicked off last year with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding leading the attack a good example of how Stuart McCall has been able to cut costs while retaining the integrity of the squad.

The five forwards this year swap James Hanson and Gareth Evans for Barry Conlon and Willy Topp which is easily argued to be no worse and perhaps better with Barry’s rambunctions being matched by Hanson’s vigour, at least in theory.

If such claims of parity could be made for the strikers then they would not be applied to the two keepers who combined are not as old as Neville Southall was when he kept goal for City and the worries over that inexperience are rumbling.

Simon Eastwood seems favourite to start as he battles Jon McLaughin for the gloves and I am forced to say that I have never seen competition for the number one shirt bring about anything but uncertainty in the past.

One can only hope that one of the two claims the spot which Rhys Evans grew to suit. Evans exit remains a mystery with the obvious hole left behind by his exit but last season’s failure has been attributed to poor morale and one can assume that some of those who exit do so because of what might be known as “off the field reasons”.

Paul Arnison’s exit was down to such and Simon Ramsden is considered a more than adequate replacement playing right back more like a central defender than a winger. Again McCall has cut while not losing quality, although the people at Rochdale take issue with the statements that Ramsden has joined the Bantams on comparable terms to those he was on at Spotland.

Zesh Rehman has joined the club full time and replaces Graeme Lee – who may very well take the field for Notts County after his summer move – and it is hard to see that exchange as worse for City. Rehman has played at a higher level than Lee and on the evidence of last season is no worse a player and much more of a talker. Good player Graeme Lee but not the lynchpin we hoped for. Rehman could be.

Matthew Clarke is still Matthew Clarke although this year faces competition for his place from Steve Williams who impressed more than any in pre-season. Expect Williams to grow in ability over the opening months at City has he gets used to the ways of professional football. He promises a mix of Clarke’s physical play and the mobility of a Dean Richards or Andrew O’Brien.

At left back Luke O’Brien has a one deal and little immediate competition for the role however cover is provided by Louis Horne who is making similar progress to last season’s player of the season.

The midfield has been talked about at length over the summer. Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock are the two senior men with James O’Brien, Stephen O’Leary and Luke Sharry offering a much shallower depth of quality that last season’s midfield which of course assumes that one believes that last season’s midfield had quality.

Objectively the choice of Nicky Law, Dean Furman, Paul McLaren and Bullock is incredibility strong however wise man say that team with a strong midfield get promoted and obviously we did not. Stuart McCall has to make changes to move the team on from that and so he has.

On the flanks Omar Daley will be missed – he is “out until Christmas” but rumoured to be on course to join the squad before that – but Chris Brandon comes into the season fit and looking useful. Joe Colbeck is on week to week contracts but as long as he plays well this week, and then next week, few will have a problem with him. Cover on the flanks is thin on the ground although Rory Boulding and Leon Osborne are available.

City’s summer of cost cutting has been far from mirror at Notts County. Sven – of course – has arrived but it is said has spent much of the week talking to lawyers about a story that concerns a blonde which reminded me of another story about when Eriksson left England but I’m far too in fear of legal action to even mention that…

So we shall move past him onto a squad that has been bolstered by the signing of Lee midfielder Ben Davies from Shrewsbury and – more notably – forward pair Lee Hughes and Karl Hawley following a significant investment from a consortium of mystery which could not be held in more suspicion in the football world outside of Meadow Lane if they were gruff looking sortd who owned disused Theme Parks in episodes of Scooby Doo.

It is said that at some point they will be signing Dietmar Hamann and Sol Campbell. Let us hope that is after the weekend.

What will be at Notts County will be and there is very little that football fans can do to stand against the cavalier attitudes taken to ownership in the modern game.

City tried spending to get out of the division and failed. Notts County’s owners are unlikely to balance risk and prudence as Mark Lawn says City have which may see The Magpies to achieve what City could not last season.

The long term effects on County will be seen in time – the other Magpies though that they were going places when they got big investment – but City start out the season with a mix of players: some young lads, some old heads, some local lads made good; and if that is not the recipe for success then success is not worth having.

Now though football starts again. Great.

Back to football as City take on Barnsley

The season, or should that be the open season, started early this year with Stuart McCall and Mark Lawn facing City fans in a forum leaving them happy on the way out but foaming at the mouth when typing.

It was one of those weeks where one is happy to get to the football as we do with the pre-season visit of Barnsley on Saturday.

City face the South Yorkshiremen in good pre-season form with the XI loss to Manchester City being largely forgotten about and McCall is able to further shape a squad that tellingly is numbered for the season but lacks a 1 and a 4.

Andy Holdsworth was to be that four before he jumped on the midfielder pile at Oldham. Some say that as a decent ball player with League One experience Holdsworth should have had the boat pushed out for him – the HMS Infinite Money one assumes – because he was obviously the missing piece in the puzzle.

These people have heard of Paul McLaren and, one assumes, know the concept of irony but these two things do not link.

Holdsworth joins Joe Keehan in exiting with the tanned man not making the grade and going home. Jordan Hadfield and Grant Smith have much work to do before being considered the man for the four but one recalls how Dean Furman did not sign for the club until August and wonders if similar might be in the works.

Hadfield, Smith and Estonian Jevgeni Novikov will have a run about alongside Lee Bullock for City against the Tykes. Joe Colbeck gears up down one flank, Chris Brandon the other although Rory Boulding and Luke Sharry will get runs out.

Behind Colbeck will not be Paul Arnison who formally ended his Bantams career as his contract was cancelled by mutual consent. Arnison and Mark Bower look set to join Darlington and while any miss Bower – I believe that that as good as a player as he is the team needed Matthew Clarke in it in League Two – we will miss Arni who was never massively popular.

As a full back I liked Arnison. He supported his winger going forward better than almost any right back player since Brian Mitchell left the club in the early 1990s which I thought made up for his failings at the back which saw him often too advanced but tellingly played in the City sides that performed well last season. Judging his performances on the field I would say that McCall made a mistake letting him go but the rumours dogging the North Easterner are that he is not a good character to have around the dressing room and so he exits.

Simon Ramsden takes the number two shirt from him and will – with Jonathan Bateson backing up – play alongside the pairing of (Perm two from) Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke. Luke O’Brien and Louis Horne are the left backs and both will feature.

The number one shirt is up for grabs. Jon McLaughlin may take the gloves but with McCall stating his desire to bring in a loan keeper City might have a new man signed to play between the sticks by the time the teams run out on Saturday.

At the other end of the field James Hanson celebrates his professional contract he signed this week and is looking to continue his good form. Gareth Evans, Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding complete what looks to be a stronger striking line up than last season.

City kick off the season in two weeks – Sven is waiting – and already the season long debate over management has started. The best answers for all are victories.

Mannus leaves, Arnison to follow?

Irish keeper Alan Mannus has left City without a contract after failing to impress while not conversing a goal in two and a half games for the club.

The Bantams are believed to be signing Frank Fielding on loan from Blackburn, or trying to at least, while Jon McLaughlin will take the gloves for Saturday’s friendly with Barnsley.

Missing from that is likely to be Paul Arnison who has suffered the repeated problem of being a Bradford City right back. Arnison follows Darren Holloway and Darren Williams in failing to make the position stick although seemed to come closer than both.

When things went well for City last season Arnison seemed to be present supporting the right flank while making a fist of keeping the space behind him covered but as things fell apart it emerged that Arni and the rest of the squad failed to see eye to eye on a number of issues and as a result of that rather than ability the player moves with Darlington his expected destination.

What Darlington boss Colon Todd can do with him remains to be seem but one doubts that with Dean Windass as player and coach that Arnison’s rumoured attitude in the dressing room will be welcomed.

Evolution meets revolution when Burnley arrive at Valley Parade

Before the start of last season when a should have been ten men Burnley squeezed a last minute pre-season win once City has brought the kids on few would have predicted that in twelve months time the length of professional football would separate the clubs.

Nevertheless Burnley took that scrapping spirit, one supposes, into all their games last year and ended up winning the play off final. One would rather they were in the top flight over Reading so more power to their elbow. There Premier League is a maelstrom and change becomes revolution fast. Two years in the top flight changed Bradford City forever and tomorrow marks the end of that old Burnley.

In contrast City rumble onward after last season’s late collapse put pay to all that justified early season promise and arriving into this season are blessed with the stability of not having replaced manager Stuart McCall at the end of last.

McCall has enjoyed the near unheard-of luxury for a City boss of being able to continue crafting his squad as a work in evolution rather than the club throwing all away and starting again and as such will only be in a stronger position this year than last, and than a manager who would have replaced McCall would have been in.

Such is the virtue of stability – not to be confused with indolence – which allows for the exit of Graeme Lee for financial reasons and his replacement by an already bedded in Zesh Rehman. Rehman plays his first game full time for City and his reaction to the element of the Burnley support who shamed their club last year may give an indication for his readiness for the available captain’s arm band.

Lee was joined in exit by Paul McLaren although Michael Boulding talks of reducing his wage to allow him to stay and Chris Brandon, the last of the expensives, is training for his first season proper for the club he supports so should need no encouragement to provide good value, value being the lesson learnt from last season. Value and the need for harmony.

A lack of harmony seems to have cost Paul Arnison his his career at Valley Parade and Simon Ramsden and Jon Bateman both joined the club in the summer and can play right back. Luke O’Brien was the left back slot to himself while Rehman and Mathew Clarke seem to be the choice for the middle two but with only Simon Ainge at senior level as back up another body is needed.

A body is needed beween the posts too. Rhys Evans was moved on quickly at the end of last term and Jon McLaughlan is off saving penalties for Great Britain. It will be interesting to see who pulls on the gloves tomorrow.

Up front Peter Thorne returns but may not play, none of us are getting any younger, however M. Boulding and new boy Gareth Evans along with Rory Boulding will show their faces expect “that lad from the reserves” to play, scuff in a goal and not be shut up about for months.

Last season that oar was Luke Sharry who looked like an able midfielder and is, in my mind at least, worth putting in the squad as back up to Lee Bullock following the fruitless and pointless chase for Nicky Law Jnr.

The chase for Dean Furman was equally fruitless but much more required. Oldham signed him leaving City looking Jordan Hadfield, who looked up for a scrap when he played at Valley Parade, to try fill empty boots. We can but hope. Three of last season’s five central midfielders have gone and with one of them, Brandon, half out the door and needed to replace the still injured Omar Daley on the left it is not hard to see where City need to strengthen.

Joe Colbeck looks for a better season on the right with Daley injured and Steve Jones, last season’s sometimes effective winger back At Burnley after his loan giving him a free run at the side.

Expect that, a few kids, a pile of people you don’t know on trial and a lot of huffing and puffing that tries to extrapolate the most random ninety minutes over the next ten months.

Arnison on his way out of City?

Paul Arnison wants to move from City for first team football after falling down the pecking order at right back after Simon Ramsden arrived from Rochdale.

There are some schools of thought on Arnison with some picturing him as the third generation full backs that have disappointed although looking at results with the ranging former Carlisle man in compared to those without him City performed far better with Arni in the side.

Nevertheless rumour persist that Arnison and the rest of the squad have not “gelled” and such rumours continue on from the tales that he was part of a significant bust up after Carlisle United’s play ff win over Leeds two years ago which saw that team’s collapse.

In short it would seem that regardless of his abilities Arnison’s face does not fit at Valley Parade and the agenda of the summer – to build a team with more backbone and spirit – means that anyone who does not fit into the squad is on the way out.

McCall needs to create a Jerk-Free zone

What makes Everton a good team? According to Tim Howard the Toffee-men are “a Jerk-Free Zone.”

The keeper has sung the praises of the squad around him that prepare for tomorrow’s FA Cup final and for his gaffer – David Moyes – who has build a squad without egos, at least at the moment. Tomorrow the Jerk-less meet up with the likes of Didder Drogba – a bigger jerk in football it is hard to find – as Everton play Chelsea for the FA Cup.

Coin-throwers, phone-in callers, with sixteen year old affair havers. It is tempting to characterise Wembley tomorrow as Jerkless vs Jerks but doing so fails to recognise the duality of “Jerks in the locker room” – as Howard might say – and the effect it has on clubs on the whole and Bradford City last season especially.

The Jerkless Everton are a team without egos who get along well and one doubts the same could be said about City last year who’s relations can be summed up by the phrase attributed to Paul Arnison – although rumours have a way of being divorced from fact and Arni may have said nothing of the sort – that he didn’t want to move to Bradford because “none of the rest of the squad like me.”

For sure the Mexico four may have gone on holiday – Swine Flu seemed to stop when MPs started expense claiming – but as John Hendrie said in his T&A column

I know three or four of the Bradford lads are going on holiday together this summer but every year we’d go away as a whole team – even the club secretary would come along. That’s how close we were.

Hendrie notes that current City boss Stuart McCall would love to build something similar – a look at the reaction to a lad’s night out shows it is not as simple as getting the players to drink together once or twice – and no doubt he would but it was not the presence of jerks (or lack of, in Everton’s case) that were the problem at City but rather the split that characterised Chelsea’s fall from Premier League Champions to the third place they occupied this season.

The figures were ludicrous to think of but Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko’s wages near doubled the next highest earners who were no mean players to begin with. Even at that level the likes of Frank Lampard were looking in the direction of Sheva and asking them to do twice as much to earn twice the wage.

Think back to Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee, Paul McLaren last season and compare them to Barry Conlon, Dean Furman or Nicky Law. Disparity in the dressing room always causes problems regardless of the jerk factor of a club. Benito Carbone was a really nice chap but the fact he was paid almost five times the average wage was a massive problem and one the team of 2000/2001 never looked like coming to grips with.

With Graeme Lee reported to be interesting Oldham and Paul McLaren raising looks from Rotherham McCall might have some movement in his team next season and should he then it is important not only to bring in the right type of player – good spirit comes with wins but having a set of nice blokes in training helps – but also to avoid created a two tiered dressing room again.

McCall’s next City squad starts to take shape

Pakistan skipper Zesh Rehman has been offered a deal by the Bantams but longest serving player Mark Bower has been freed as Stuart McCall starts building his squad for 2009/2010.

McCall’s side’s failure to make the play offs has led to budget cuts – that is the short and not especially representative version of long story – and as a result four senior players have been freed with Bower joining out on loan Barry Conlon, oft injured Paul Heckingbottom, bit player Keith Gillespie and – surprisingly – Rhys Evans out of Valley Parade with the goalkeeper being rumoured to be interesting League One clubs including Leeds United.

The City boss has also prompted Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding to try find other clubs – something they can do owing to oddly one sided clauses in their contracts – but worries that should they not do the wage budget will be restricted. With times tough for many, if not most, clubs at the moment it is hard to see who will take the players on. Michael Boulding was not short of offers this time twelve months ago but traded from a position of being the leading scorer in League Two, likewise Paul McLaren negotiated with City as the most creative man in League One. Now these players go to a depressed market with a line on the CV that is read as a failure to make the top seven in League Two.

Do not be surprised if we have not seen the last of this trio.

Another trio who McCall would like us to see more of are Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones whom the manager is trying to recapture on loan. Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock, Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck, Leon Osborne Jon McLaughlin, Luke Sharry and Matthew Convey have been offered contracts while Kyle Nix is welcome back to preseason one assumes to await news of an exit for Lee, Boulding or McLaren. McCall will talk with Peter Thorne tomorrow.

All of which leave City with a weakened version of this season’s team should these machinations come off. McLaughlin seems to be fancied to be the new keeper having kept a clean sheet in the final game of last term. At 21 he is young but League Two is – increasingly for City – a learner’s league.

Paul Arnison has a two year deal and one assumes will stick at right back although his unwillingness to relocate from the North East is rumoured to have caused problems for McCall. Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke in the central defensive roles with Luke O’Brien at left back is an inch worse than Graeme Lee partnering either one – Lee came out of the season with more credit than most in this writer’s opinion – but Rehman is a cultured player and one who one could have confidence in. Clarke will continue to have his critics for both not being able to spray a Glenn Hoddle pass – which defender can? – and for his defensive lapses but since he replaced Bower in the side City have stopped being bullied by the usual big men forward lines we face.

Without wanting to delve into the stats of how many six foot two plus players have won headers in City game against Clarke vs Bower anecdotally one would suggest it is obvious that Clarke has plugged that gap. That he has other failings is a problem but in a League where physical prowess – bigness, if you will – is often the route to goal it is that no being bullied which is important rather than Bower’s more intelligent style of defending.

As with Andrew O’Brien before him Bower’s style suits the club less the further down the leagues we are. O’Brien’s man marking is superb on Thierry Henry but wasted in the Championship and Bower’s foot in play could – and would – do a lot at a Barnsley but does not at Valley Parade. One would have confidence that Bower could nick the ball from big men frequently but McCall obviously worries that the long serving defender would spend the rest of his time on his backside having been flattened and getting little sympathy from Referees.

Hearts are heavy though when a player with a service record like Bower’s leaves a club. He has given the lion’s share of his career to Bradford City having signed up on the 13th of May, 1999 four days after promotion and broken into the side a few years later with honest displays. He did his bit in administration and beyond and few City fans would not hope that he can establish himself somewhere else for the five or six years he could have in the game.

Uniting Dean Furman and Lee Bullock would seem to be the key to McCall’s midfield for next season with the City manager keen to see the Rangers midfielder back in the position he dominated last term – he played few games than Paul McLaren but made a more significant impact and was certainly more memorable – but Ibrox boss Walter Smith may have different ideas. Bullock is a useful player who has only shown his effectiveness in short spells while at Valley Parade. Next season McCall seems set to offer the former Hartlepool United midfielder the chance to make the position his own.

However McCall has struggled thus far in his management career to find a player to fill that number four shirt and role which he himself took at Valley Parade. Furman won the place from Paul McLaren whose season could be described as “middling”. McLaren did not take the mantel of senior professional with enough zeal and as a result on occasion looked a peripheral figure – especially when compared to Furman – just as Paul Evans the season before had failed to make the McCall slot his own.

Returning to Hoddle momentarily it is said that when England manager Glenn was frustrated with the players inability to match the magic feats of his own passing and one can only imagine the frustration that McCall – a player who lived by taking games by the scruff on the neck – has watching two players who have no shortage of talent in Evans and McLaren failing to control matches. Is Furman a better passer of a ball than McLaren or a better tackler than Evans? One could argue not but he has more cunning, more guile and it seems a stronger character that allows him to have more of a constant effect over a ninety minutes.

Defensive midfield – Furman’s nominal position and the one McCall had – is perhaps the most crucial role on the field and Furman represents a safe bet for City. We have seen that he will not shirk in the role unlike the previous two candidates who were on the face of it excellent choices for such a position and thus he is a tried and tested option for a job which I would argue the failure to fill correctly has cost us over the previous two season, and probably longer.

It should be noted that Luke Sharry has had a productive season and while not ready for the number four role should be expecting to feature in a dozen or more games next term.

The scenario on the flanks remains as it was this season: Joe Colbeck, perhaps Chris Brandon, Omar Daley when fit, Nicky Law should he return and Steve Jones if he is interested. Returning Colbeck from the jaws is poor form and the critics that wait for such to attack him is of paramount importance for McCall as establishing Omar Daley as a threat on the left was this term. McCall flits between preferring a pair of wide players such as Daley, Jones and Colbeck and wanting one wide and one more tucked in as Chris Brandon or Law offers and one can expect that method of trying to fill the middle of the midfield to continue.

Brandon has been unable to provide much of an indication as to his effectiveness this season and – based on last season – given a choice between him and Law one would take the younger man from Sheffield United. Should Brandon be edged out of Valley Parade – and indications are that the club would be able to keep him – then Kyle Nix would be an able replacement and I for one am surprised that the young Rotheraussie has not been offered a new deal offering the heart and ability the former of which was often lacking last season.

In August Stuart McCall would hope to line up with Joe Colbeck, Dean Furman, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon across the middle and few would suggest that represents a major shift away from this term with improvement inferred from consistency with all four players having spent long periods injured. Allowing whoever is in the number four role to build up a relationship with the defenders to feed the ball in ending the long hoof of the end of last term and with the three midfielders around him who would take the ball is crucial and Furman can be trusted to do that. If he is not retained we re-enter the lucky dip of trying to bring in a cog to be the most important part of our machine. Like good goalscorers – they don’t get given away.

Peter Thorne will talk to Stuart McCall in a conversation about “legs” and if the striker still has them and McCall will hope to move Michael Boulding on to no great distress from I. For all his hard work Boulding failed to build a partnership either with the forward he was alongside or the players supplying him from midfield. Barry Conlon officially left the club and Willy Topp is long gone leaving the City boss looking for three or four strikers for next term.

In this respect McCall is in the hands of the trio of players who may leave. Should Lee, McLaren and Michael Boulding all exit then pressure on his budget would be loosened and the City manager could get to looking for a goal getter or two – one would suggest he tries to find a fast one, a skilful one, a big one and one who can finish again but that is how we entered this year – but should this not happen then the Bantams manager will be left looking at scraps to find a feast. The ramification of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke’s fall out with McCall obviously preclude Conlon’s return despite a half dozen goals for Grimsby Town and one wonders if allowing the fighting Irish to leave is not going to haunt the Gaffer as he starts looking for players with passion, strength and a good track record and finds that Barry’s name comes top of the searches.

In such a situation Rory Boulding becomes an option although reports on him are mixed on the little brother while Leon Osborne and Sean Taylforth are no one’s idea of the player to lead you out of League Two. All three could be world beaters but the fact that they are – should Thorne not be retained – all that is in the cupboard for next term shows the problem Stuart McCall will have in building a side for next term.

In the season John Hendrie talked about the need for another striker and McCall tried Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin in that role but ultimately when cutting the cloth to keep the club in business the side suffers and the forward line would seem to be where City are to take the hit.

So McCall is charged with three summer tasks. He must get the players he has offered new deals to to sign – some are given reduced terms – and will use the carrot of a smaller squad and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven achieve that with the likes of Lee Bullock.

Secondly he must work on ensuring he has the right man for the number four role with Dean Furman being nominated as the prefer choice. Filling this position is or paramount importance.

Finally he must find a set of strikers who want to play for the club and who have the ability but for some reason – probably as with Thorne it would be age – are not at a higher level and do not expect massive wages. Rumour has it David Wetherall is being moved to youth team coach. Wetherall never really got on with Dean Windass…

Why can’t you do that every week?

“Why can’t you do that every week?”

Is that what would supporters ask of the the players, the manager, the club after the season at Valley Parade ended without promotion but with a fine win.

Bradford City’s problem – and the problem that has driven Stuart McCall to distraction and seen the 45th game of the League Two season finally rule City out of promotion or the play-offs following Dag & Red’s win over Notts County – is that the team team has been incapable of withstanding setbacks within games.

Goals ruled out, mistakes made, goals conceded all seeing the squad’s brittle morale crack. Think the collapses at Rochdale or Barnet, the reversals at Notts County or Morecambe. Defeats that came after when the team was incapable of withstanding the slings and arrows of fortune. In the swirling atmosphere of this day no such upset occurred and the Bantams powered to an impressive 3-0 win over an credible Rotherham United side who made a good fist of a game where ultimately they were lucky not to lose by more.

That the atmosphere was good was owing to the swell of opinion that Stuart McCall remain as City manager becoming vocalised and realised in a demonstration in favour of the gaffer. Save Our Stuart messages were held up, chants were made and the players responded with an intelligent and effective performance.

McCall sent out what – should he be true to his threat to resign – is his last team at Valley Parade with Kyle Nix recalled to create a four man midfield alongside Lee Bullock, Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman. Matthew Clarke was dropped in favour of Zesh Rehman and Steve Jones partnered Peter Thorne in the forward line. In the week – while paying tribute to Wayne Jacobs – McCall said he wished that his other signings had worked out as well as as his number two. Matthew Clarke, Michael Boulding, Paul McLaren, Chris Brandon and a few others are thus charged and as a result they cool their heels on the sidelines.

Those who did play did McCall proud with a display of tight passing at pace that could rank as the home performance of the season. After ten minutes pressure brought a corner which was cleared and returned goalwards by Dean Furman beating all on its way to goal except Peter Thorne who’s slight deflection continued the ball’s progress into the net. Rotherham’s defence were incandescent suggesting that Thorne was offside – visitors number four Danny Harrison could have been playing the City striker onside although confusion was king in the stands and on the field. The goal stood perhaps because Furman’s shot was going in and the Referee decided that a goal would have been without Thorne (entirely against the rules) or perhaps Harrison was playing Thorne on side or perhaps the Referee got it wrong.

Rotherham felt angry at the first and flattened by the second where Nicky Law Jnr got down the right – McCall’s diamond shaped midfield saw Law on the right hand side but not the right wing and he and Nix on the left hand side were able to keep in contact with the strikers which has proved a problem this term – and crossed low and firmly to Thorne who hit a close range finish after cutting in front of defender Nick Fenton. Thorne’s crisp finish left keeper Andy Warrington flat on his back, seemingly resigned to defeat.

Flat footed Fenton became flattening Fenton when – rather unprovoked – he lunged into Law as the City man shielded the ball out for a throw-in. That the visitors defender was yellow carded showed – perhaps – the end of season nature of the game rather than reflected the seriousness of the foul which was out of character of a well natured game.

The Bradford City team this season has not struggled when on top of a game exchanging blows with the South Yorkshire side but not being breached. A third almost came after half time when on a break – lovely to see a team come attack at VP – when Thorne crossed to Jones who saw his finish clawed away by Warrington. A second counter ten minutes later saw sub Joe Colbeck find Jones with an impressive pass and Jones sprint in on goal to finish the game.

Good performances were all over the field for the Bantams. Rhys Evans looked solid, Paul Arnison and player of the season Luke O’Brien got up and down the flanks and Rehman and Lee were solid against a lively attack which – when he came on – were dangerous especially in the form of Drewe Broughton. Also telling was the fact that Dean Furman took the all from the back four and used it well rather than allowing the back four to pump the ball long.

All of which came under a blanket of positivity from the assembled Valley Parade audience who got behind the team – really got behind the team – and the effects were seen on the field. Rotherham – who have enough points to have finished in the top three this season – were no soft touch but the Bantams bested them and while Thorne could have hat a hat-trick testing Warrington twice more The Millers were enterprising and could have got one back and – as we have seen – caused the wobble that has seen this promotion bid fail.

If they keep it up they will be challenging for the top three next season. The same is true of the Bantams on all levels. It seems to be that today and two weeks ago the represented a consideration on how the level of support and the level of performance are not just yoked together but that the one (not can but) will inspire the other.

The players took a lap of the field to applause – nothing compared to what everyone was expecting with the promotion which was expected – and Stuart McCall followed to a clear statement – “Stuart must stay” – from the supporters who had lifted the team to a fine win.

What would the players, the manager, the club say to the supporters who had created an atmosphere of inexorable victory:

“Why can’t you do that every week?”

Stuart’s biggest failure

There are only 25 miles between Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road and Wembley – but after this crushing defeat Bradford City manager Stuart McCall might as well to start working on that trip to the moon.

An image of the front page of the first upload of BfB

to fans at te final stle.

This was one mustn’t lose game too many, one which pushes City below the victorious Daggers, one which puts City below the in-form Morecambe, one which, after Shrewbury’s surprise away success at Rotherham, leaves City four points off the top seven with two games to play. Mathematically it may still be possible, but only if a sequence of results so improbable they would be rejected by the writing team for Doctor Who occur.

Which won’t happen, because this lot aren’t good enough.

City weren’t particularly poor for the first 58 minutes that preceded Sam Saunders’  opener, but just like recent weeks the wheels fell off too quickly. Of all the failings which have been on evidence during the end of season collapse, it is the poor response to conceding which has hurt the most. There was a spell of ten minutes after conceding where possession was surrendered more quickly than ever and ideas to come back were in short supply. Testament to a lack of confidence, but most tellingly it betrays desire and passion.

Because just like other recent defeats, most notably at Morecambe, the opposition simply wanted it more. Dagenham were not a bad side but their direct approach made them predictable and defendable. Yet when they did not have the ball, home players harried and pressurised those in white shirts for it back. Their workrate was best summed up by a second half City corner which they not only cleared, but chased up the loose ball that went to Luke O’Brien, forcing the younger defender to pass it back to Rhys Evans. Even then the City keeper found his attempt to launch the ball back into the area compromised by a Daggers striker charging at him. This level of work rate was not shown by the visitors.

For a time that might not have mattered as City started reasonably well and created two glorious chances for Chris Brandon and Peter Thorne, which were both headed over. Steve Jones was initially, at least, a threat on the left and the recalled Paul Arnison looked comfortable bringing the ball forward at right back. With Dagenham giving a debut to 20-year-old on-loan Tottenham keeper David Button, who looked nervous with his catching and kicking, the initiative was waiting to be taken.

Dagenham, starting the day with faint play off hopes, were a threat going forward and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke were kept occupied by the dangerous Paul Benson and Ben Strevens respectively. Work had clearly been done on defending set pieces with Paul McLaren assisting Lee in cutting out Benson’s flick-ons from throw ins and corners. Evans had to make one good save from a scramble in the box and the first half ended with City needing to step things up.

They did just that, with Thorne having a goal disallowed after Paul Mullin tangled with Button and City’s top scorer had an empty net to head the loose ball into. Stuart was angry about the referee’s decision not to award a goal and the list of close refereeing decisions against City in recent weeks is growing. However, unlike the chalked off strike at Morecambe, the two penalties at Rochdale and the foul in Lincoln’s opener, this was the least convincing case to feel aggrieved.

Shortly after Saunders struck for Dagenham after cutting inside on the flank and firing a curling shot from the edge of the box into the corner. Hardly great defending in closing the impressive winger down, but the strongest emotion was one of envy at how few current City players seem incapable or unwillingly to try something as opportunistic.

The response was slow and Benson rattled the bar, but eventually pressure at the other end began to start up again. Nicky Law was introduced for the disappointing Brandon, while an injury to Lee saw Mark Bower brought on for a first City appearance since September. I hope City’s longest serving player is supposed to be our vice captain. The alternative, which saw Lee pass the armband to McLaren, who looked at it with disinterest and waited for Bower to run past so he could pass it on, doesn’t bare thinking about.

Law was a typical menace on the left and set up a chance for Mullin, while another cross resulted in Lee Bullock heading against the post. Stuart gambled by going 4-3-3 and bringing on Michael Boulding for the long-since anonymous Jones, but the City sub is in poor form and failed to make any impact.

Instead Benson beat the offside flag and fired low past Evans to put the game out of sight and, after a terrible mix up between Bower and Evans, Strevens was left with the easiest of chances to make it 3-0. Maybe that flattered Dagenham, but such was the poor response from City’s players it’s difficult to argue they even deserved a lift back to Bradford after the final whistle.

As scores were relayed around the away terrace there was one which stuck out more sorely than even Shrewsbury’s success; Grimsby’s 3-0 win over Port Vale included two more goals for Barry Conlon. There are good reasons why Conlon was shipped off, but his replacement Mullin has not worked out. We hope loan players can put in as much effort as the rest, but it’s hard to believe this is the best the on-loan Accrington striker can muster. Caught offside continually and casual in his distribution, Bradford City may look like a nice addition to his playing CV but the words “going through the motions” should appear next to his appearance record. Jones is equally guilty of a lack of commitment and cannot be relied upon to always deliver when the chips are down. Law and the injured Dean Furman are loan players who give their all, but when Stuart allowed Conlon to leave he needed to sign a player to match the Irishman’s commitment.

But that isn’t Stuart’s biggest failing. At the final whistle the City manager ran over to us away fans, which took courage and character. The anger from some fans was temporarily suspended as we listened to what he had to say.

He asked us if we thought Thorne’s disallowed goal should have stood, he apologised for the performance and when a “Stuart, Stuart” chant started he asked us not to, saying something like, “I’m sorry lads, I’m not good enough and I’m sorry.” A typically up-front assessment from the City legend, but it is an accusation which first and foremost should be directed at those in the dressing room.

And that is Stuart’s biggest failing as manager. Two years ago, in his first interview after taking the City job, he told the Telegraph & Argus,

“I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris With…no one had ever heard of them but they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it. You still see them coming back because of that special bond. I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

Stuart apologised to us supporters at the end, but Thorne was the only player who bothered to come over and thank us at the final whistle. The rest half heartedly clapped by the half way line and scuttled off. Let their manager take responsibility, let them hide away, let them treat supporters who have travelled some 250 miles to cheer them with no respect.

If anyone is leaving the club during the summer, let these players be first in the queue.

Deflecting viewpoints – Bournemouth v Bradford City – League Two preview

Deflections are habitually described as wicked, and the one which Dean Moxley’s cross took off Paul Arnison to loop over Rhys Evans for Exeter’s winner on Saturday was heinous in its contribution towards City’s promotion hopes.

City spent the remaining 70 minutes trying to neutralise its implication but in the end it was late drama 250 miles to the East, in Kent, which had the most telling affect. Grant Holt’s late equaliser may have pushed his Shrewsbury side above City, but the two points it cost Gillingham means automatic promotion remains a reachable three points away. Victory at Bournemouth tonight could shorten that gap to mere goal difference and deflect a season in danger of going either way back in the right direction.

Recent form is not good enough, no one would argue. Defeat at Exeter was City’s fourth in a row on the road and fourth in six full stop. It’s a measure of inconsistencies with City’s promotion rivals – Brentford apart – that a one point deficit City had after drawing at home to Darlington last month has only increased by two during a period of some of the Bantams’ worst performances of the campaign.

Much has been made online about the latest defeat with the extreme calls of Stuart McCall to be sacked aired by some. Normally I’d try to argue this is ridiculous but there seems little point, not least because their cries are not going to be acted upon by those who get to decide. Furthermore I – as, I would guess, are many others who defend Stuart – am tired of receiving the lazy and patronising put-down of wearing ‘rose-tinted glasses’ when I do.

There’s no room for debate with some supporters, if you disagree Stuart should be booted out it’s not because you rationally believe he’s doing a decent job, you are stupid; or blind and own prescribed magic spectacles – I forget which.

Back in the South, the City squad have remained from Saturday and one hopes the unusually long period of time spent together as a group will have benefited team morale and increased focus ahead of a vital encounter with Bournemouth. Stuart took a squad of 20 to Devon last week before facing a disciplinary problem with Barry Conlon and Matt Clarke, which hampered selection.

Reaction to Conlon and Clarke’s misdemeanours is like opinions on the best way to punish children – everyone has a view but no one ever agrees. Details are unclear, but it would seem Stuart chose to keep them grounded in the stand and stop their pocket money for at least a week. Some criticise him for cutting his nose to spite his face by leaving them out, others argue the pair should never play for the club again. Both players are expected to be back in consideration again with Stuart’s reluctance to publicly criticise them hopefully being rewarded with a determination from both to make amends.

Conlon’s absence and another little injury to Peter Thorne left Stuart selecting Nicky Law up front with Michael Boulding at St James Park. Stuart is often accused of playing Law ‘out of position’, though these critics seem to ignore the fact Law’s career at Sheffield United has so far involved playing out wide or up front. A central midfield partnership with Dean Furman results in Law ultimately ‘out of position’. Some might call it clever management by Stuart to get such great performances out of him in the centre this season. They will probably be the same folk wearing rose-tinted glasses, though.

Law should return to the midfield but perhaps on the wing with Lee Bullock or Paul McLaren partnering Furman in the centre and Steve Jones on the right. The club’s failure to get returning injured players looking anything better than rusty is troubling, though Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon may be considered for starts. As will Keith Gillespie.

Up front Thorne is definitely out so Conlon should partner the hit and miss Boulding. Stuart’s failure to bring in a fourth striker is been debated by some. Tellingly up to five clubs are reported to be on the verge of administration with talk of one League Two club being unable to complete its fixtures. That won’t be City, but the still tight finances mean the luxury of signing the mythical fourth striker who’d score lots of goals probably isn’t available.

Jones is the nearest to a replacement we had for Willy Topp in terms of space on the wage bill, and may play more regularly in the striker berth if other wingers can start matching his form out wide. Gillespie was clearly only brought in because of Omar Daley’s injury and whether he is on anything more than a pay-as-you-play deal is suspectable.

At the back Clarke will be expected to return with Zesh Rehman either switched to right back for Arnison or relegated back to the bench. Luke O’Brien and Graeme Lee will hope to better recent efforts with Evans keeping goal.

Bournemouth’s recent form is amongst the best in the league and stronger than most promotion-chasing clubs. From a seemingly hopeless position, their third manager of the season, Eddie Howe, has reinvigorated belief and ten undefeated matches from 12 has propelled the Cherries out of the bottom two. They are also the only club to win at Valley Parade so far this season and present a tough prospect for City to end their away woes against.

Defeat would prompt an even angrier reaction from fans and a win would largely bring calm. Whichever there will be eight games left to play and nothing to suggest the up-and-down nature of the first 38 will cease. This is going to be the most exciting end to a season in ages and as much as they may leave us sleepness and distraught on occasions they should also bring excitment and joy.

Spectacles optional.

It is not plain which plan is being followed

Note: The following is Paul Firth’s report in the game with Exeter that was mailed on Saturday night but took some time to arrive leaving events to pass it with the news of the reason for Conlon and Clarke’s exclusion. The report makes interesting reading so is included.

Many words have been written on BfB earlier this season on the concept of ‘Plan B’ and, in particular, on whether Stuart McCall has one. At Exeter it was not plain which Plan or, indeed, if anything that might be dignified by the use of a term such as ‘plan’ had been put into action.

The obvious response to the Rochdale defeat was a reshuffling of the team. At kick off it wasn’t easy to work out what the team, as opposed to the eleven players, would be. Maybe this was the plan, to confuse the opponents. It certainly confused me for long enough. The Thorne/Boulding/Conlon debate took another twist with only the middle one of the three surviving. But what looked like a 4-5-1, with Boulding on his own, became a 4-4-1-1, with Nicky Law ‘in the hole’.

Zesh Rehman replaced Matt Clarke, who had been no worse than a few other defenders at Rochdale. But the midfield saw the biggest changes. Out went Joe Colbeck and back came both Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren. About the only description to be given to this section of the team was disjointed.

We all know how effective Law and Furman have been together and that there can be a problem if the opposition have a few more tall players. Disrupting that partnership can be justified, but not so easily. This was not so much a disruption as an earthquake. Furman looked lost. Not only was he without his partner, but he was no longer sure who his partner was. McLaren rarely crossed the half way line. Bullock’s function seemed to be to get on the end of any high ball from the back – and there were far too many of those again – and only Jones, in his spot on the right wing, seemed truly at home.

The bench contained no fewer than two more right wingers in Colbeck and the newly signed Gillespie, together with Brandon, Thorne and Ainge. The absence of a keeper should no longer be a surprise, perhaps, but do we really need two right wingers on the bench? Messrs Conlon and Clarke, sitting in the row behind me in the stand, looked in danger of tripping over their faces so long were they. I don’t think they liked not being in the sixteen.

The Cowshed roof at St James Park (the Exeter version) has an overhang that reminded me of the old Valley Parade stand. The football in 2009 also reminded me of the pre-1985 style. I lost sight of the ball for about a third of the game because either a stanchion obstructed my view or the ball was once more coming out of the sky above. The pitch appeared to be in very fine condition, but perhaps the groundsman had threatened both sides about wearing out his grass.

City without doubt are at their best when they pass the ball at pace along the ground and use the obvious skills of the front six. Instead they competed with the home team in a game of hoof-ball that was unedifying and rarely entertaining. It summed up the quality of the match that the only goal was a complete fluke. Dean Moxey advanced up the left wing, going past Arnison with some ease, despite the attempted hand-off. As Arnison returned for a second attempt Moxey crossed from near the corner. The ball was deflected up in the air over the head of the hapless (and capless) Evans and into the net. Whether the sun shining straight into his face made any difference only Evans will know. The Exeter keeper in the second half was not bare headed.

At half time there had been plenty of good work down City’s right, but the home keeper had had just the one shot to save, a half volley from outside the box hit well enough by Steve Jones, but requiring only a routine stop.

As the teams came out for the second half I couldn’t help thinking of the symbolism in McLaren’s change of shirt. His new top had neither number nor name. In every sense he would now be anonymous, any identity being revealed only when the number 4 came up on the fourth official’s board twenty minutes into the half. Enter Peter Thorne and another change of formation, with Law, Furman and Bullock vying with each other for the midfield area not covered by Jones.

As the second half progressed City had more and more possession in their opponents’ defensive third. Corners and free kicks were apparently endless, but the home keeper had very few saves to make, the best being with his feet following a Jones run and shot. In front of him Taylor and the wonderfully named Troy Archibald-Henville hardly put a foot wrong and dealt so comfortably with the string of high balls that they must have wondered if City’s defenders had been told that Barry Conlon was in the stand.

For a brief moment our saviour looked to be on hand. A long ball from Luke O’Brien found Peter Thorne between the central defenders and he was through into the area. Memories of that goal at Port Vale flashed through the mind, only to be wiped out in the next flash. Perhaps we should just say that there was a difference in pace, Thorne was put under pressure before being able to hit a shot and the move came to nothing.

Dean Furman’s confused day came to a slightly premature end when Joe Colbeck replaced him with five minutes remaining. There was still enough time for the entire team save for Luke O’Brien to go up for a corner and for Zesh Rehman to be yellow carded for an offence that might have brought a red – especially if it had really been an offence.

There had been much huffing and puffing, not to mention too large a portion of high balls. The effort was undeniable, but in truth neither team showed the skill level that would suggest they were capable of promotion. A disappointing result took City out of the play-off places n a day when a win would have done so much more. Messrs Conlon and Clarke were stony faced. Perhaps they shared my thought that, if we have to play so many high balls, it might be best to have someone their size to get under them.

Another bad repeat

Shortly after half time at Spotland, Bradford City’s players found themselves rueing missed opportunities and a two-goal burst from the home side which left them chasing a deficit. As symbolism goes it was a pretty fair analogy of City’s promotion challenge to date – and of the size of the task this defeat leaves them in achieving that goal.

Fortune certainly favoured Rochdale and the three-point advantage they now look down upon City from in 3rd place is less comfortable than this three-goal victory might suggest; but while manager Stuart McCall can point to a woeful refereeing display from Scott Mathieson contributing greatly to his side’s fourth away defeat in five, he will also know much of it was self-inflicted.

Quite how the evening went so wrong is something Stuart will be pondering for the next few days. Having spent the first 20 minutes under the cosh from a vibrant Dale side who passed the ball around with fluency and alternated attacks down both flanks, City were the better team for spells during the rest of the half and could easily have gone in at the interval one or two goals ahead.

Barry Conlon, recalled ahead of Michael Boulding, ably linked up with Peter Thorne and was effective in holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Steve Jones carried on where he left off Saturday with some teasing dribbles and dangerous crosses. Nicky Law and Dean Furman, while never able to dominate the middle of the park in the manner they’d succeeded in the last two home games, competed well against the industrious Gary Jones and Clark Keltie.

The best chances fell to Thorne, who twice saw one-on-one opportunities against on-loan Blackburn keeper Frank Fielding blocked. The first one stemmed from good play by Conlon which left City’s top scorer with time and space to do better than the scuffed effort straight at Fielding. The second was a more difficult chance but better attempt, which needed to be pushed wide of the post. Just after half time Graeme Lee’s header from a corner was superbly stopped again by Fielding and, with other half chances created, most of the goal action fell in Rochdale’s penalty area. Rhys Evans did see one headed effort flash wide of his post.

Yet shortly into the second half Rochdale scored after Joe Colbeck, who endured another tough evening, fouled the dangerous Will Buckley and the resultant free kick was nodded home by Rory McArdle. With new purpose to Rochale’s game the tide quickly turned, although it was the dubious help from the officials in adjudging that Conlon’s attempt to clear the ball from a corner included his arm which put them in a stronger position. Adam Le Fondre, twice scourge of City last season, dispatched the resultant spot kick despite Evans getting a hand to it. When an even softer penalty was awarded following Matt Clarke’s challenge in the box – which looked clean from my position – Le Fondre repeated the feat.

But whatever sense of injustice City felt, demonstrated by assistant manager Wayne Jacobs getting sent off from the dug out and Stuart holding a long conversation with Mathieson at full time, it should not disguise another poor response to adversity. A decent performance once again fell apart and the final 35 minutes did not make pretty viewing from a Claret and Amber perspective. Rochdale continued to attack with purpose while desperation became too quickly evident in City’s forward play. Having successfully harried home players into mistakes during the first half, it was now the away team who couldn’t get time on the ball.

A premature panic on the touchline didn’t help either. As soon as Le Fondre struck his first penalty a double substitution was made by Stuart which had little effect. I’ve been told all season that Stuart “never makes his subs early enough” – funny how Todd, Law, Jefferies, Jewell et all were just as bad at this – so maybe this action was applauded by some, but considering City hadn’t done a lot wrong up to then such drastic action seemed a bit much.

Certainly Conlon was unfortunate to be taken off and, though his replacement Boulding was a willing worker, the ball stopped sticking in the final third. Substituting Colbeck was probably the right decision, though some of the abuse he is getting from some fans right now is unfair. Somehow last season’s player of the year has become the “worst player ever” and jumping up to scream when he struggles to keep an attack going is hardly going to help him rediscover confidence that has been lost since returning from a first significant career injury.

Lee Bullock came on, with Law moved out wide and doing a decent job, but the likelihood of City coming back had diminished long before the second penalty. At that point change three had been made after Paul Arnison was rescued from the roasting Buckley was dishing him and Zesh Rehman brought on. With Lee’s form notably dipping, arguments for bringing Rehman into the centre or keeping him at right back and recalling Mark Bower from Luton are being aired. Stuart must be pondering how a defence which has looked so strong at home can be so feeble away.

Something which, with two important away games in Devon and Dorset this next week, urgently must be improved on. Results elsewhere still leave City in a decent position but the team’s failure to deliver extraordinary results rather than just good results may ultimately leave it facing an extended end to the season rather than a top three podium place. There’s been too many poor performances on the road and there was no evidence at Spotland to suggest this would be the last.

Stuart did an excellent job of ensuring his team responded positively to the Barnet and Notts County set backs and the immediate challenge is to do that again. But for City to achieve promotion this season – automatic or via Wembley – his ability to get to the bottom of why it keeps going wrong will need to come through.

McCall will hope City can start the way they finish

In eleven days – and three away games – time the promotion hopes for Bradford City will be much clearer but as a signal of intent and a send off on that decisive Odyssey the Bantams could hardly have been more emphatic.

Indeed it seemed 75 second after kick off when Peter Thorne was wheeling away following the opening goal of the game that the seven days since the defeat at Notts County could have been a lifetime of a span.

Thorne reclaimed his scoring touch darting into a hole that Michael Boulding had made in the defence to get on the end of an excellent low cross from the left by the increasingly useful Steve Jones and pushing the ball past a hapless Nicky Bull who would not get near any of the five goals he picked out of his net this afternoon.

Following on from Thorne’s goal City never wobbled. A minor incident involving Rhys Evans coming out of his goal as City failed to follow stay up centre back Anthony Charles which resulted in a not that threatening snubbed out shot at goal.

This was as much of a chance as the visitors had to get back and within minutes Bull once again picked the ball out of his goal following Dean Furman’s deflected strike which was just return following a corner which saw Matthew Clarke shoved unceremoniously from under the ball in what was an obvious penalty denied.

That it was denied was no surprise with Referee Graham Salisbury in charge. Salisbury had once denied City a goal against Yeovil following a defender pass back and sent off Jermaine Johnson in the same game in what was the wingers last game for the Bantams. Salisbury makes a habit of sending off City players but today restricted himself to ignoring that penalty and allowing Marvin Morgan to get away with the kind of loose arm across the face on Clarke which is exactly the sort of thing that he sends City players off for.

Nevertheless – and to paraphrase Sean Connery – losers moan about the Referee and winner go home with the match ball. Or the prom queen. Dean Furman deserves both for another superb display controlling central midfield. Much of how City do in the forthcoming games at Rochdale, Bournemouth and Exeter will depend on how much Furman can break up play as he did so well at Valley Parade today.

With his club Rangers making people redundant and looking for ways to save a bob or two I would not be at all surprised to see Furman starting SPL games next season – nor do I think he would look out of place – but in the years since Stuart McCall the player left the club and Stuart McCall the manager returned we have (any club would) been crying out for a replacement and in Furman we have one.

My erstwhile colleague Jason sings the praises of Nicky Law Jnr who delivered the perfect corner for Peter Thorne to glide through the air to head in the Bantams third, again Charles – conspicuous with his Afro – stood still as his man reeled away in celebration.

Rochdale’s defeat to Bury at midday had seen the Shakers go third and Rochdale drop to fourth. A 5-0 win would put City fourth and at the start of the day the task was to keep fifth as the Bantams supremacy continued it looked feasible.

A note at this point to the school who had turned up with a banner in support of “Bradford City and Zesh Rehman” and a country flag in tribute to the defender who unfortunately for the kids spent ninety minutes on the bench watching another excellent display by Paul Arnison at right back.

Arnison has not enjoyed universal support from City fans but it seems that when he plays the Bantams have another dimension and the support that Arnison offers to right winger Joe Colbeck is important.

Colbeck is getting back into the swing of things and looked dangerous in the second half rampaging forward getting a reward with two minutes to go putting in another low cross that skimmed past Charles and to sub Barry Conlon who touched the ball past Nicky Bull from seven yards out (Edit: The cross was by Nicky Law Jnr). Target man Barry using his head to stay on side by coming onto a ball which seemed to elude Shots left back Anthony Straker who chewed the linesman out all second half and never was spoken to about it unlike JJ three years ago.

Spoken about but never seen was Chris Brandon who – some two thousand years after signing for City and getting injured – made his début coming on for Michael Boulding seconds after the hard working striker had been unlucky not to add the fourth that Conlon got and would have had the fifth with what would have been his first kick for his home club following Colbeck’s low cross but Rhys Day stuck out a leg and Aldershot’s afternoon was all over, as was the game.

The Bantams up to fourth and on to the road to far off places on the South Coast following a short trip to the team we jumped over in Rochdale. When City return to Valley Parade in two weeks time the reminder of the season will have been shaped.

Realists would say that to expect more than a point away from home is too high an expectation and should City get three from three or less then it would seem that scrapping for play off places is the order of the day.

If we can score at a rate near two points a game – two wins, a win and two draws, one of each even perhaps – then we would be looking at the ability to challenge for the automatic promotion places and the play offs would be fall back.

The criticisms of City’s manager – as with the defeats – seem a long time ago with proposed successor Peter Jackson spending the afternoon watching his Lincoln City get pounded by Grimsby. McCall has got City into a position where the finish to the season defines the season.

Last year the Bantams approached the last months looking to find form and a run, the last promotion side the Bantams had were looking to hold onto faltering form. McCall’s City are well placed and pick up points at a consistent rate on the whole. The season enters end game with the Bantams firmly in the position where should we perform well then we can manufacture our own destiny.

He will hope that the finish the season as we started this game and that the start of that finish is as complete as the finishing today. As a signal of intent this – the tenth home win of the season – is as telling as they come.

What should happen next – Bradford City vs Aldershot Town – League Two 2008/2009

It’s March, which in recent years for City fans has meant either anxiety over surviving relegation or disappointment at having nothing to play for.

It’s been exactly 10 years since credible promotion hopes have lasted this long into a campaign and there’s a sense of excitement at what might lie ahead. City welcome Aldershot to Valley Parade tomorrow and then travel to promotion rivals Rochdale and Exeter a few days later. It’s time for our bums, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, to start squeaking.

Credit for what the management and players have achieved so far this season is often in limited supply from some quarters, but they have delivered more than other recent City teams in getting this far. Though there is perhaps one mental block that it’s still questionable they’ve overcome this season which will be put to the ultimate test tomorrow – the comfortable home win.

City should win tomorrow, although should is a dangerous word. In our first season out of the Premiership we should have beaten Stockport, Millwall and Sheff Wed at Valley Parade. We should have earned home victories over Gillingham and Walsall in 2002/03, Derby and Rotherham 2003/04, Torquay in 2004/05, Bournemouth in 2005/06, Northampton 2006/07 and Accrington 2007/08 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we should win, we invariably slip up and it’s such habits which could be looked back on with regret if promotion is not achieved come May.

City’s home record is much better this season and only Bournemouth have taken maximum points, though that was a game we should have won. There have also been draws with Luton, Barnet, Dagenham and Accrington which the team and us supporters went into confident we should win. Aldershot may have a woeful away record and go into their March with nothing to play for, but they should not be taken lightly as any points dropped by City would undermine whatever’s achieved in Lancashire and Devon next week.

After a much-needed and well deserved win over Macclesfield Tuesday, manager Stuart McCall will have a more confident squad to choose from and is likely to keep it similar. The biggest question lies up front with Peter Thorne rested and now vying for a recall and Stuart debating whether to hold him back for Tuesday. Barry Conlon came in and had his best game for some time while Michael Boulding was much improved after his frankly pathetic showing at Notts County. One may drop to the bench and the other may face that prospect a few days later.

In midfield the partnership of Nicky Law and Dean Furman did more than most to earn the Macclesfield win and both are a joy to watch at present. Furman has revealed his celebration for Tuesday’s winner was dedicated to the injured Omar Daley which is not what you might typically expect from a loan player, it also seems to go against rumours of dressing room unrest which have been circulating.

Steve Jones frustrates me for his less-than-committed attitude and it will take a while to forget the disgraceful manner he left Zesh Rehman to be slaughtered by Myles Weston at Meadow Lane last week. He is popular with some fans and can be excellent when he wants to be, but his style of running down blind alleys and woeful crossing is a little too reminiscent of Ben Murihead 2003 for my liking. He will keep his place on the left with Joe Colbeck continuing to find form and fitness on the right. The flurry of games over the next fortnight make it a good time for Chris Brandon to be almost back as it may prove too much for last season’s player of the season to start them all.

The defence should continue as they were. On Tuesday Graeme Lee appeared to be the target of the boo boys with previous victims Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison passed over, probably due to how well they both played. Such ‘support’ has yet to be directed towards Luke O’Brien, who was much better after a slight wobble of late. Rhys Evans keeps goal and will be proud of a home record that has seen him beaten only once – a deflected free kick – between the sticks at BD8 in nine games.

Aldershot seem to be enjoying the kind of season newly-promoted teams regularly enjoy in starting well before drifting off towards the end. They’ve won one in 11 and none on the road since November, although did cause Gillingham a few problems recently when they drew 4-4 at the Priestfield. They also inflicted City’s first defeat of the season back in August.

Which means there is that usual danger lurking behind thinking City should win tomorrow. We’ll turn up that bit more relaxed, get behind the team that bit less and get frustrated that bit sooner. A home win wouldn’t be earth shattering but, though we’re not used to games meaning something in this way come Spring, we shouldn’t forget that picking up maximum points as often as possible is what’s vital at this stage – whether it’s a fixture we should or shouldn’t win.

McCall looks to show the guts as City face Macclesfield at Valley Parade

Today we discuss: How much are the clubs managed like the manager?

It is often felt that a manager maketh a team in his image from the attacking entertainment of Newcastle United and Kevin Keegan to the sturdy charges of Steve Bruce at Wigan Athletic the manager’s template becomes the team’s tactics. Certainly a glance down the table suggests that that theory is enjoying prominence save the odd exception – Arsene Wengers’s players are much better than he ever was – with the likes of David Moyes creating a stocky team and Martin O’Neill a determined and able one.

This has not always been the case. Bryan Robson’s meat and potatoes Middlesbrough – and his potatoes and nothing much else City sides – were a million miles away from the most exciting midfielder in the country he was when he skippered England while the playing on his own winger that was Paul Jewell begat a side built around playing for each other.

Stuart McCall’s Bradford City team have turned in – it is widely felt – two gutless performances totally at opposite to the way the midfield terrier himself used to race around the pitch trying to kick every ball. McCall showed more passion in the last minute of a 4-0 defeat at Coventry than some of his charges did at 0-0.

It must be galling for McCall to watch players who put in less effort although few would doubt the City manager had an engine near unparalleled in the game and how McCall reacts to the realisation that his finest quality is also one of the rarest defines his relationship with the players. Unerring passer Glenn Hoddle’s famed disgust at the lack of technical skills in the England dressing room that included David Beckham led to his exclusion of the pre-iconic winger from his 1998 World Cup side but – as one of those players put it – “We can’t all be Glenn Hoddle.” It seemed the England manager had not realised that.

So Stuart McCall looks for a response for his players who were criticised last week for not taking enough responsibility for the performance and have failed to redress that balance. McCall points out – to deaf ears perhaps – that as disappointing for all that the team’s 3-1 defeat at Notts County was it was not the overwhelming that the scoreline and resultant negativity suggests. “They have only had four shots and three of them have gone in” said the City boss.

The negativity is something that has grown since this fixture – Bradford City v Macclesfield Town – opened last season and is a fact of life for a football manager. There is an old adage repeated in Syd Fields book on screenwriting where nine of ten people stopped when walking down an L.A. street and asked “How is your script coming on?” replied “Brilliant, but how did you know I was writing one?”

Blindly as football fans of any colour or stripe if they are happy with their club’s manager then perhaps it would be all but one in ten who grumbled back to you. Most football supporters talk much about the need for stability at their club but alas it always seems that there is an element who believes that that stability starts with the next manager.

A wider point on management is that it works best when allowed to enact longer term planning, a specific one is that our management has started to manifest the first improvement in demonstrative results in ten years and an even more specific point is that ludicrousness of the thought to replacing our gaffer with someone who is fairing more poorly at a club in our division.

City start two home game – two more – that promise to be season defining but ultimately success and failure in both will not guarantee nor deny promotion with Macclesfield being followed by Aldershot Town on Saturday and do so with a squad that has questions over fitness as much as attitude.

It escapes no one that since he lunged for a ball against Darlington Rhys Evans has conceded seven goals where previously he was keeping clean sheets but the goalkeeper seems to be City’s only option between the sticks and is not held liable for the goals on the whole either. The defence that was solid is not anything but and there are calls for Paul Arnison to be restored and Matthew Clarke dropped for Zesh Rehman to be put into the heart of the defence. The experiences at Luton Town suggest that three – not two – big lads to head the ball away is no bad thing and while he has performed well for most of this season the fact that this debate on who should form the back four never includes Luke O’Brien is curious. The lad has done exceptionally well since he broke into the first team but accepting the three big fellas rule then it is he or Arnison and not both.

The midfield is a problem area. It is a scant month since Nicky Law Jnr had to be acquired at all costs and now it seems he is part of a team who are not fit to wear the shirt – or so supporters sang on Saturday – and the continued use of loan players in the middle and fear that some – well, only me perhaps – had that it would make a soft centred team are realised. Not that Dean Furman, Law and Steve Jones are to shoulder all the blame for the last two results. Perhaps those three players – with the detachment that being a transient singing gives you – look at the past 180s minutes and say “Teams lose away from home, that is football, you make up for it with a couple of wins at home.”

The loss of Omar Daley and perhaps use of Chris Brandon shapes the midfield as would – if they were true – the rumours of an absence for Paul McLaren. In the never that humble opinion of this writer McLaren and Furman would be City’s best engine room with Joe Colbeck on the right and Steve Jones the left which is tantamount to admitting that until Brandon is fit we are playing with ten men – or one man hobbled – but virtue of having to play Jones on what is very obviously an uncomfortable position.

Peter Thorne – having scored his first goal in four months – is expected to be joined by Barry Conlon up front with Michael Boulding doing little to engender good will in the first half on Saturday. There is something of a debate on the need for another striker at the club which perhaps encapsulates the entire problem with City not just this last two weeks but perhaps going back years.

Players- and for that matter managers – are never given the expectation that they can and should improve but rather are aimed at to be shunted away and replaced. I don’t think that City need a new striker, I think last season’s top scorer and a guy who once cost £3m should take responsibility for playing well.

That is what Stuart McCall would have done. That is how this club should be managed like the manager.

I have seen Chris Brandon play

It had been quite a few years since I last took in a reserves game. The only one I actually recall was in approximately 2001 when a strong Manchester United strolled into Valley Parade and a City reserves record attendance of 6,000 witnessed a 3-0 away win. The club cashed in that night (rightly so?!) – charging a fiver a head.

That game could not have been in more constant to what I saw on Tuesday afternoon.

There is something quite strange about attending a game at 2 PM on a Tuesday. My sister (how did I convince her to go to this one?!) and I parked right outside the City club shop at 13.55 with no hassle at all. I spotted one Huddersfield coach a bit further up the road, and just outside the “executive box” entrance I walked past Mr Peter Jackson who was escorting an elderly gentlemen into the stadium. Some other City fans outside enjoyed some friendly banter with the ex City man and now Lincoln City manager (and lest we forget former Huddersfield manager).

It was free entrance for all supporters. In the Sunwin stand foyer, the canteen was open for business and there was a gentleman selling an A4 team sheet with the line-ups on for 10p a pop.

Taking up a seat near the halfway line, about halfway up (similar to my season ticket position in the Midland Road). I noticed that there were about 200 people in attendance. The crowd was a mixture of the retired, a few students, and the majority as it turned out had come from up the road and who loudly cheered every Huddersfield goal.

The majority of the City interest in this game was focused on a first real look at Chris Brandon, a summer acquisition from our local rivals that we faced in this game. “Brando” as he is clearly called by his teammates – derived by being able to hear every sound the players make in this environment – had a positive outing. He shows some excellent touches and close control and seems to be very comfortable with both feet. He wasn’t overused in this game, as most of the game was run in the centre of midfield and his teammates didn’t pass to him as much as you might have expected. As soon as ex City loanee Tom Clarke, who was playing right back against Brandon, was substituted in the second half, Brandon began to have more of an influence on the game. And his performance was capped with an excellently struck free kick from 25 yards out that flew past the Town keeper and into the net.

He nearly added a second late on as he surged into the area but struck just wide, as the goal opened up for him. The encouraging signs from this were that he completed a full 90 minutes and seemed to be fairly fit at the end of it. But in my judgement he looks at least 2 weeks off being fully match fit, allowing him to fully gain match sharpness.

With regards the rest of the City reserve team, five players had played a first team match this season and used this game to gain more match fitness.

Paul Arnison captained the side but was badly caught out for the first goal conceded by letting Joe Skarz get in front of him and got on the end of a cross from the right.

Simon Ainge looked really commanding on occasions in the air, but had a torrid time dealing with the lively Kiegan Parker. Ainge made an absolutely terrible mistake at the end of the first half by hesitating and letting Parker in for a lob – which should have resulted in a routine tip over the bar by Convey – but the young goalkeeper embarrassingly could only palm the ball into the net. Ainge looks some way off making the first team playing centre back – right back would surely suit him more, as his decision making at times is very sketchy.

Lee Bullock had a steady game, and had a few touches of class and influence.

Joe Colbeck threatened in the first half, but faded in the second. Colbeck took a poor penalty at the end of the first half, which was saved low to his right by the Huddersfield keeper.

The biggest disappointment was up front with the Conlon and Rory Boulding partnership. Both players had terrible games, especially Boulding who never got a meaningful shot on goal – and just ran around making bad decisions when in possession of the ball.

I was equally unimpressed with our young prospects Louis Horne and Luke Sharry on this display. Both players look a million miles off making a first team debut. Sharry gets out battled in midfield and his shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Horne seems to only know how to pass the ball back instead of going forward, and was guilty of “foul throwing” twice in one game. Terribly unprofessional.

The strong team that City reserves put out we heavily beaten by a better side who created more chances and were clinical in front of goal.

But putting aside some of the disappointments of the players’ on view – the key to this exercise was to get two of our most dangerous wingers getting more games under their belt. Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon could be the key players that could catapult us out of this league. The more games they play and gain match sharpness the better as we desperately need them both firing on all cylinders for the crucial weeks that lie ahead.

I picked up my ticket to the Notts County away game after the match. Can we put the Underhill disaster behind us and start playing like promotion candidates? A repeat of last season’s trip to Meadow Lane would do just nicely thank you.

Into the final third – Barnet vs Bradford City – League Two preview

31 games down, 15 to go. As the season enters its final third every point gained and lost is going to seem increasingly crucial.

During the last week the League Two promotion race has taken added significance for Bradford City after visits from two of its main rivals. This time last week we’d all have taken four points from tricky games against Wycombe and Darlington and, though City have dropped one league position after achieving that, they remain very much in the hunt.

What the two games did emphasise is the tightness of this season’s promotion battle. Brentford and Wycombe may currently be able to glimpse daylight between them and the rest of the pack, but with only six points separating the top seven no-one can be sure of anything. Three from Brentford, Wycombe, Bury, Shrewsbury, Rochdale, City, Darlington and Exeter are likely to finish in the automatic promotion spots and, from those who don’t, only one at least can claim promotion via the play offs, if Dagenham or Gillingham don’t steal in. Those clubs ultimately celebrating in May will be well aware of how close many ran them, which will only add to the achievement.

Meanwhile at the other end one of the most non-eventful relegation battles ever is suddenly getting interesting after Bournemouth’s 1-0 win over Accrington last Saturday pushed the previously doomed-looking Cherries into touching distance of others. Luton are down but Stanley, Chester, Grimsby and of course Barnet are starting to realise that a season of underachievement might yet be punished and have much to do during the final weeks.

It means weekend fixtures such as Accrington v Dagenham, Darlington v Grimsby and Chester v Exeter are important for both sides and City’s trip to Barnet is no different. The London club has only won once at home all season and once home and away in 21. Trooping off the pitch having lost to Notts County last Saturday to discover Bournemouth are closing in should have provided renewed motivation to build on a three-match unbeaten run against the Bantams.

The biggest worry for City ahead of the game is not of the dangerous John O’Flynn and Albert Adomah, but of finding a keeper to face them. Rhys Evans’ injury on Tuesday leaves him needing to recuperate and second-choice keeper Jon McLaughlin is desperately unlucky to be ruled out because of concussion. Stuart is actively looking for an emergency loan keeper but may play Evans through the pain barrier and ask Luke O’Brien to take his goal kicks again. One hopes it won’t come to that because if nothing else defenders taking goal kicks enables the opposition to play a higher line up the park, something Darlington attempted in the second half on Tuesday.

At least the rest of the defence will be fit to carry on their impressive form with Paul Arnison unlucky to be watching from the bench as Zesh Rehman plays in his right back slot, it will be the first time during his loan spell that the Pakistan international will have stayed in the same position for two consecutive games. Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke partner in the centre with another round of groans at how much ‘hoof-ball’ the duo contributed on Tuesday. It’s a shame some supporters cannot understand football better and appreciate Darlington’s ploy of packing the midfield made it almost impossible for City to pass their way forward. As you would expect from a side looking for a 9th clean sheet in 12, both centre backs are in great form. O’Brien’s dipped on Tuesday and a leading contender for player of the season will hope to be back to his best tomorrow.

In midfield Omar Daley’s injury should result in a Joe Colbeck start. He’s now made five substitute appearances since returning from injury and has impressed, although struggled against his former club Tuesday. As did Steve Jones on the other flank, who continues to play brilliantly one week and disappointingly the next – a typical winger, perhaps. Nicky Law may be moved out wide instead of Colbeck with one of Paul McLaren or Lee Bullock brought into the centre to partner Dean Furman. Up front Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne will continue. The latter is desperately hoping for a first goal since netting against Barnet last November.

The visitor’s attacking approach impressed that afternoon, but it’s points not plaudits both sides will want tomorrow. Anything less than victory will be disappointing for City, but it’s in games such as these they’ve so often slipped up over recent years. Everyone in League Two will be keeping one eye on everyone else and, as rearranged matches are finally played and other six-pointers such as Saturday’s Rochdale v Brentford are concluded, the next few weeks will be crucial with some of the leading pack likely to lose ground.

An away win for City tomorrow may not be considered earth-shattering, but it would nevertheless be an important step towards crossing the now-approaching finishing line ahead of the majority.

All heart

It’s at moments such as these – with the clock showing 10 minutes to go, with the chant “City till I die’ emanating from all four sides and with those who run the club having put the books to one side to join 12,689 people in watching City ultimately triumph 1-0 over promotion rivals Wycombe – that you wonder why we’re even bothering to consider leaving Valley Parade at all.

This was an afternoon where I hope I wasn’t the only person to feel the hairs on the back of his/her neck stand up through been part of such a superb atmosphere. City have won a corner and I look fondly over to fans in the Kop climb out of their seats to help suck the ball into the net. Behind the opposite goal, supporters in the Bradford End are keeping up their non-stop chanting efforts which began before kick off. The final whistle was met with huge cheers and triumphant home players hugged each other. An important three points, a potentially pivotal moment of the season, another special afternoon in our home.

Sure I’m being sentimental and romantic, but then it is Valentines Day so why not? Of course the fantastic atmosphere could be replicated – who knows even bettered – in another ground a few miles up the hill. But just like our Claret and Amber colours, fanatical supporters who will even come to the game on their wedding day (hope you didn’t miss that at half time!) and players who aren’t the greatest but who we love in our own way – Valley Parade is a much a part of the Bradford City experience. We need to use our heads when considering the potential move, but yesterday we got to follow our hearts.

Heart that was apparent on the pitch too as both City and Wycombe gave their all to produce an absorbing contest. With Brentford, Bury and Rochdale all expected to and managing to win their games, for City this win was for self-preservation purposes in their interest of a top three finish. They started in the same confident manner which has characterised their previous two victories with Omar Daley and Steve Jones stretching Wycombe down the flanks and Dean Furman and Nicky Law again pulling the strings in the middle. Both look too good for this level with Law’s vision and ability to produce killer passes a huge asset and arguably something City have not had in their armoury since the manager himself was out on the pitch.

Wycombe, who lost central defender Mike Williamson to Watford in the transfer window, defended deeply but struggled to deal with crosses from which City came close to scoring a few times. Matt Clarke should have done better with a header from a corner and Peter Thorne – captain for the day – headed wide, Law’s long range shot was deflected wide and a Wycombe defender almost turned one cross into his own net.

Yet the Chairboys, who until Tuesday had led the table since November, got back into the game and showed what a good side they are. Their movement off the ball when on the attack was impressive with players marking late runs from deep and in the centre Tom Docherty was excelling by playing deep and pinging some probing passes forward. Furman excellently cleared off the line from striker Jon-Paul Pittman’s header, Matt Harrold air-kicked a great chance after which Matt Bloomfield wastefully fired wide and Chris Zebroski’s overhead kick attempt sailed narrowly over.

Arguably against the run of play, City struck the all important goal just before half time. It was yet another example of the devastating football this team can produce. First Jones did well to win possession before being tripped after releasing it to Furman. Referee Carl Boyeson allowed advantage and the ball was with Law to charge over half way. His pass to Daley lacked pace, but the Jamaican beat his man and cut inside before squaring to Luke O’Brien. The full back’s cross was intended for Michael Boulding but squirmed through to Thorne who beautifully laid off the ball to Jones to fire home on the half volley.

It continued to be end-to-end stuff in the second half with Wycombe inserting strong pressure in the early stages and Rhys Evans having to make some good saves. The defence in front of him was lacking their usual leader Graeme Lee and Zesh Rehman, switched over from left-back, struggled a little with his ball control though was generally solid. Clarke was outstanding and seemed to revel in the more senior responsibility while Paul Arnison’s performance could be best illustrated by the fact the usual full-back ‘experts’ in the crowd weren’t on his back. The clean sheet they would go onto earn was a seventh in ten games and only Evans and Clarke have figured in all of those; something which Clarke’s army of critics, who seem to be ignoring his recent upturn in form, might want to mull over.

Boyeson’s bizarre style of refereeing took more centre stage in the second half. He let a series of fouls from both sides go and at one stage left the impression he’d forgotten his cards – Arnison should have been booked – while displaying an anal-like determination to ensure all throw ins were taken from exactly the right spot. Frustration of the officials and from losing seemed to get the better of Wycombe players who began to self-destruct with a series of poor challenges. None more so than Docherty, who’s coolness in the first half had given way to recklessness and who should have been booked long before he eventually was.

Boiling point was reached after Zebroski’s ludicrous high challenge on Clarke which saw boot connect with face. The red card was quickly issued and the final 12 minutes were that little bit more comfortable for City. A second goal might have come before that with Boulding volleying over, but in the final stages Law and substitute Joe Colbeck went agonisingly close to ensuring Wycombe would not be able to produce a sucker punch at the other end.

It was close, but City just about edged the game and three wins in a row provide great confidence ahead of another vital encounter on Tuesday. The team is finding form in all areas – Thorne for example was outstanding leading the line and contributed more than he usually seems to – and one only has to look at who can’t get in the team to see how well the players in it are doing. Lee will presumably join Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Barry Conlon and Colbeck on the bench Tuesday with the clear message to those on the field that they must keep producing.

Or should Lee go back in and Arnison be dropped? Should Colbeck start on Tuesday and Daley be rested? Yesterday conversations on such matters will have filled the air instead of whether to pack up and do this all someplace else. Maybe we’re on the final chapter of Valley Parade’s history and such occasions will shortly be over, though as we listened to the radio on the journey home we heard of renewed hope that a deal to buy Valley Parade might be reached.

It was good timing, for yesterday at least the head had no chance of winning over the heart.

How much is game in hand worth? Gillingham vs Bradford City Preview

Snow.

The world is full of it and if this country had proper snow ploughs then we would not have a question mark over this weekend’s game with Gillingham. No, we would have a question over whether a vehicle used once every twenty years would start on a cold day.

If the game with Gillingham goes ahead then City look at playing off with the Kent side for a play-off place with them in seventh and the Bantams a place below and the right set of results – or postponements – could leave either fourth on Saturday evening.

Postponements being the challenge of logic in football. Inevitably they occur – City already have an away game at AFC Bournemouth to attempt to replay as well as Monday night’s cancelled Darlington home game – and unrealistically they twist the table leading to the question “how much is game in hand worth?”

Shrewsbury are a place above Gillingham and two above City and a point ahead of the Bantams. Is it safe to assume that – that game played – we can adjust City above the men from Gay Meadow? Some – Bill Shankley for example – would say not and point to every point having to be earned. The grizzled Scot would say that you have nothing when you have nothing and dinne ye forget it.

Nevertheless with 45 point from 28 games City are picking up 1.7 points a game so extrapolating that average we could assume that we would get that point – and a bit more – at least. Taking an example Grimsby Town – 22nd on the league and a point and place below Barnet – score at 0.78 points per game and thus it is probably not safe to assume they will overhaul the club a place above them however the fact that they are one down in the played column – and no one in the league has the 30 games played that have been scheduled – gives them the optimism that they may collect all three points.

Indeed when City faced relegation from the First Division under Chris Kamara Grimsby Town looked at our game in hand against then high flying Charlton Athletic and could have worked out a similar logic with City as likely to collect three points at home on that Thursday night as they were at any other time during the season. We won that game and beat QPR to stay up with our game in hand counting for three points.

Countering that in 1988 West Ham United had five games in hand over Liverpool which – if they were all won – would have seen them snatch the league. They collected less than half of those points and one was left to reflect not that Frank McAvennie and co had blow a chance at the league just that it was a quirk of statistics that suggested they had one and had the games been played in their scheduled slots in the season they would have been the same unremarkable results and the Hammers would have ended up third in a less exciting way.

Games in hand create falseness. City pick up 1.87 points a home game and 1.31 from an away one but how one uses those stats to create an adjusted league table is no more an accurate reflection than assumption that every game not played will be won.

What we do know is that the Bantams beat Grimsby Town last weekend and Stuart McCall struggles with riches in the midfield – Joe Colbeck is expected to start the next City game be it this one or the game with Wycombe Wanderers on Valentines Day – and misfiring strikers up front.

The midfield of Colbeck, Dean Furman, Nicky Law Jnr and Omar Daley seems set to continue while Paul McLaren is injured – in my experience the people who suggest we do not need McLaren in the team also puzzle about our corners not beating the first man when he is not playing and I would yoke those two points together – but McCall has a liking for Steve Jones which could see him included somewhere. McCall had tried playing Jones as a forward having seen his own strikers notch but two in eight from free play.

Probable starter Michael Boulding believes both he and partner Peter Thorne can get to twenty by the season end and I am reminded of an old footballing adage about front men: How many goals does the front man of a winning team scored? Enough. City are a drawing team of late and the strikers need to improve, or at least have improvement visited on them with better service.

The defence at City is mean – almost as mean as its critics – and only seriously leaked when they lost the headed defensive clearances of Barry Conlon at Luton. Six foot plus Zesh Rahmen’s inclusion at right back was more to do with getting a third big man to mark at set plays than it was a reflection on Paul Arnison and Rahmen is expected to retain a place alongside Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke with Luke O’Brien at left back and Rhys Evans between the sticks.

Except, of course, they will all probably be at home, kicking their heels, talking about snow ploughs.

McCall needs to find the belief in basics

Bradford City circa 1999 had a trait rare in the club’s history and rare in football – they could win ugly.

Winning ugly – which is to say ended up with the three points in the sort of games that City are taking one from – is often the key to success. Manchester United did it on Saturday, Liverpool did not on Monday and on such differences are championships won.

The thirty-eight game Premiership with its longer rest periods and more significant – or perhaps just more well known – opponents is different from the cut and thrust of the lower leagues and in League Two the elusive crucial goal that makes the difference is less likely to come from a pre-knowledge of the opponents weakness or a tactical master stroke and more likely to be ground out by a consistency of high performance. In League Two the team that prospers is the team that plays well week in week out, that does the same things well week in week out, that can be relied upon week in week out.

In other words a team unlike City’s weak last half hour showing at the weekend which did little other than allow Accrington Stanley to glide through the second half of the second half relatively untroubled. While the Bantams were enjoying the lion’s share of the possession there seemed to be a feeling that other than shoving the ball in the direction of Omar Daley on the half way line there was not much of an understanding of what to do to cause the visitors problems.

All of which is troubling. This Bantams team are far from clueless and have – in the opening third of the season – known exactly how to win games. Recall the start of the season and the danger that came from cross after cross by Paul Arnison, Joe Colbeck, Daley, Paul McLaren and Paul Heckingbottom and then the gaps in the middle that could be exploited by Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock as opponents strengthened on the flanks through fear and suddenly what City are doing wrong now becomes all too apparent.

The Bantams have become one dimensional. Perhaps it is the battle of Barry Conlon which has led the players to believe that a long ball is not a wasted ball or perhaps it is the loss of Colbeck and – for a strange time – Arnison which has altered the way the Bantams perceive their abilities to bang the ball over but at the moment when the ball goes wide – and it does because the middle of every visiting side is thick with players – the results are all too predictable. Both Daley and Steve Jones favour running at players and low crosses and the best way for the opposition to defend this is to pile yet more men into the middle keeping full backs tight to the edge of the box.

Contrast this to Colbeck and Arnison both capable of whipping a ball in and a full back and winger having to go wide and stay wide to try stop them and one can see why Thorne and Boulding are finding goals hard to come by in the box – it is because space is hard to come by. This is not to say that City should only be crossing high but rather that we have allowed our entire arsenal to be reduced to a single trick of trying to beat men on the flanks and while that has worked with devastating effect it is too infrequent.

Stuart McCall has a level of basics that he needs to steer his City side back towards but his path is beset with bad advice and the chance to make poor decisions. Talk brews about Paul McLaren’s abilities but – as with Arnison – the best judge of the City number four is to look at the results since his return City have only a single loss – the last minute travesty at Brentford – and a tightening up at the back that as City’s most defensive minded midfielder he takes some credit for. The same could be said of Paul Arnison. Arnison has never been popular at City but simple facts show that the defence concedes fewer goals with him in it.

McCall must look to the basics of his team and what works well when done well because that is the way to win ugly in League Two. City need to get back to establish patterns – patterns of being able to cross from different angles in full-backs and wingers and to exploit the space that creates when defences are stretched – and settle on a group of players who can do that with consistency and belief.

The midfield cup runneth over – Bradford City vs Accrington Stanley – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall must look back to the start of December and find it hard to recall how he struggled when Tom Clarke was recalled by Huddersfield Town to find midfielders for his Bradford City team that bobbed along in the promotion hunt – never falling below the play-off, never being able to cement a top three place – with injuries and suspensions robbing him of that favoured phrase of the commentary “six first team midfielders”.

With the return of Joe Colbeck to the training squad – if not to the team – and Lee Bullock to contention then McCall could field a six man middle should he wish. Certainly with great form from Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr the central two positions are covered and Bullock – along with Dean Furman – are sidelined. Steve Jones has not played since extending his loan deal at the club and is likely to start on the right hand side with Colbeck looking for a gap to return.

Omar Daley is set for the left side of midfield and behind him is Luke O’Brien who is not only becoming talked about as a player of the season candidate but is also developing a good relationship with Daley in front of him.

On the opposite side Paul Arnison will look forward to playing with the more thorough Colbeck than the attacking minded Jones while Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Rhys Evans stand on a record of four consecutive clean sheets.

Looking to continue the last ten minutes at Accrington are the perm two from three of City’s strike force with Peter Thorne fit once more and Barry Conlon expected to step down. Michael Boulding will play alongside. Stuart McCall talked this week about the need to keep the number of strikers at the club down to a reasonable level and playing two up front leaves – in my estimation – five slots for players so as to avoid the demotivation of being too far from the first team. The main three City strikers are augmented by Chris O’Grady and Rory Boulding and it would seem that – unless he has an eye on a replacement for the loanee O’Grady – McCall has as many forwards as he wants.

He certainly has the firepower from those forwards should they be fed as evidenced by the last ten minutes at Accrington when Conlon, Thorne and M Boulding all added their names to the scoresheet to turn around the thought lost game. The onus is on the midfield – so full of options – to create chances.

Changing teams – AFC Bournemouth vs Bradford City preview

This game has been called off because of a frozen pitch.

A pitch inspection at 12:00 today will tell Stuart McCall, Bradford City’s players and the supporters if a trip to AFC Bournemouth will be needed this weekend and while weather on the South Coast is questionable City’s desire to put right the only home defeat of the season is not.

The Bantams were bested by Darren Anderton’s inspired display for the Cherries as they had new manager Jimmy Quinn installed. Since that day both Quinn and Anderton have left the club and with them seems to have gone the form that saw them win 3-1 that day. They have suffered three defeats in the last three games and previous to that were knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans. Struggling with a deduction it is hard to see where the points will come from to keep them in the Football League.

All of which is demoralising and something that – when the game is played – City will hope ot take advantage of. The Bantams are looking more in race trim of late but with a 4-0 and three no score draws in the last four are obviously struggling to find the net. News that Peter Thorne is back in training is heartening as is the word that Joe Colbeck will play a reserve friendly game next week. Thorne’s finishing is always welcome but the added thrust from the flank that Colbeck added in games like the 4-1 defeat of Exeter has been missed and should the trip South be called off then Colbeck’s presence in the rearranged game could be significant. Certainly the team are more dangerous with the young winger in than with Steve Jones whom McCall is said to be signing from Burnley once his loan deal expires.

Thorne is not expected to return to the starting eleven – the hard pitch and a bad back being a poor combination – leaving Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding up front. Omar Daley and Steve Jones take the flanks alongside Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr with Dean Furman cooling his heels. One must feel sorry for the impressive Furman who has much to suggest him for a place in the side however the form of McLaren and especially Law is such that McCall has to stick with them.

Also impressive in the run of four games without conceding is Matthew Clarke who continues to be underrated as a presence in the City side and has given the Bantams a commanding edge. Also underrated is Graeme Lee’s organsational abilities which while never getting to the level of the Master – Noel Blake – are certainly better than the majority of defenders who have worn claret and amber including the man who preceded him as skipper and central defender David Wetherall. Paul Arnison is rated by fewer than he should be put clean sheet for defensive players should be impressive and he will look forward to the return of Colbeck and renewing the combination they had developed. Luke O’Brien has come on a million miles from the day he was skinned by Gareth Grant at Farsley Celtic and is being talked about as a player of the season.

No one’s player of the season is Rhys Evans but in the last month the goalkeeper has found his bit shouting voice – something Gary Walsh had over Matt Clarke and the reason the former was a better keeper than the latter – and the defence looks all the better for it.

The finishing, finishing touch – Bradford City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – League Two Match Report

Having suggested that City were lucky to beat his side 4-0 Morecambe manager Sammy McIlroy would have come away from Valley Parade after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury with the impression that the Bantams are strangers to fortune.

From start to finish the Bantams bested the visitors from Shropshire all over the field coming within an inch of the post from Barry Conlon’s fierce volley from taking three richly deserved points.

Alas Conlon’s volley on the half hour pinged back and Michael Boulding’s tidy sweep over the shoulder of keeper Luke Daniels proved too close to the custodian and was saved as City looked to cut through the Shrews with tidy, fast paced and inventive play.

The midfield central duo of Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr were busy out of possession and commanding in it with Dean Furman benched and only able to watch a pair of middle men working together and working well. Omar Daley’s battle on the left wing with Darren Moss was the clash of the season thus far with Moss struggling to keep pace with Daley and Daley trying to burst past the right back. In the second half Moss and Daley clashed with the right back lucky not to be booked and Daley leaving an arm in on the defender which saw Stuart McCall fling him to the right hand side to cool down ended the fascinating clash.

Steve Jones on the alternative wing was less enthralling and looks something of a one trick pony. He is dangerous for sure but too often playing his own game leaving Paul Arnison with few options.

Arnison was a part of a flawless five man defence which has not conceded in the four games over Christmas. Graeme Lee was outstanding pocketing Grant Holt – who in typical Grant Holt tried to rip that pocket with kicks and studs – and making enough sturdy interceptions to remind one of David Wetherall at his best. Matt Clarke also get mentioned – the days of City being muscled out by big blokes is over – and Rhys Evans has engaged mouth and commands the back four superbly.

Luke O’Brien’s form has seen him inherit the title “Ohbee” from Andy and today should have been rewarded with a penalty for an enterprising surge past Omar Daley and into the box only to be shoved to the floor. Arnison – on the other side of the field – was left holding his face after an untidy jump saw him hit with a flailing arm. Conlon was lunged at after the ball, Boulding was upended. If these tackles has been in midfield they would have been free kicks. Referee Russel J Booth using the Wild West school of officialdom. Anything that keeps the game flowing is allowed and when Holt lunged through a defender then walked away waving a hand dismissively ignoring the Ref’s call over you had to wonder what happened to that whole “Respect” thing.

None of which is to take anything away from the Shrews who played a part in an exciting game but looked second best and but for a slice of that luck that Sammy McIlroy credits us with or the finish of a Peter Thorne – missing injured and seemingly replaceable – the Bantams would have won.

As it is City sit third again at the top of a pile of clubs who will be fighting out for the play offs and without putting too fine a point on it should the Bantams play as we did today and not go up then football is broken – play like this and we will go up – but the worry remains that despite possessing the leading striker in the division last season, one of the better ones this and Barry who never gives up City do not score enough goals – or rather we score them in gluts of fours and not odd ones and that the six home draws could have been wins with a deadlier finisher. Chris O’Grady held the ball after coming ensuring that the remaining fifteen minutes would be played in the Shrews half but is no one’s finisher.

Shrewsbury spent their lottery win on Holt and he was not able to nick the odd goal today. City look at events at Leeds with Delph and prepare a with and without shopping list looking for the thirty goal finisher who would thrive in a team that plays this well.

The finisher who would be the finishing touch.

Finding that something extra

The biggest worry for Bradford City manager Stuart McCall is that these are the sort of games promotion-earning sides win.

It’s not always pretty and a fair amount of luck is involved, the home side will play well and carve out some good chances which are either wasted or foiled by excellent defending. All that was missing for the Bantams was a late winner to turn one point into three. Instead a winless run stretches to five games and the chasing pack climbs that little bit closer.

Not that anyone should be panicking. This was a decent performance against a Lincoln side who have improved considerably since the last time they locked horns with City a year ago to the day. A recent come-back win against Accrington prompted manager Peter Jackson to revert to 4-4-2 and they matched City in most departments quickly closing down the ball and knocking it around confidently themselves.

Dany N’Guessan impressed on their right providing Luke O’Brien with a difficult afternoon where the defensive support from Omar Daley – who we’ll come back to – was lacking. The other three of City’s back four were outstanding with Matt Clarke continuing to rediscover form and Graeme Lee getting his head on almost every ball launched into the area. Paul Arnison had surely his best game in a Bantams shirt yet and was hugely impressive in shutting down the threat from Lincoln’s left and getting forward. With Rhys Evans also solid, home chances were limited.

Further up the pitch things were more patchy with Paul McLaren and Nicky Law involved in a hard-fought midfield battle which they just about edged. It doesn’t always look pretty and sometimes the simple ball must be played rather than the defence-splitting 40-yard pass some fans demanded, but both had good shifts. Steve Jones too was a menace on the right and his pace is blistering at times, though his final ball did sometimes disappoint.

As for Daley, it didn’t start well and got worse. We know the Jamaican is better than cutting inside and looking to pass the ball almost every time, instead of charging at the full back and enabling others the opportunity to get into the box. We know he is better than standing half-interested when the ball is been fought over just in front of him and may suddenly land at his feet. We know he is better than falling over easily and rolling on the ground long after the referee has dismissed his appeals for a foul and his team mates are having to deal with a Lincoln breakaway. Jackson had called upon the Premiership experience of Frank Sinclair to tame Daley and the former Chelsea man was the clear winner of a heated battle.

But still Daley was involved in much of City’s best moves. After ten minutes he’d burst thrilling into the area only to be seemingly tripped just as he rose his right leg to shoot, but referee Neil Swarbrick waved away the penalty appeals. Shortly afterwards Michael Boulding broke forward well and was pulled back inside the box, only to receive the same verdict from the Lancashire official. Boulding had done much to keep the scores level at that point having headed a Lincoln effort off the line and later dragging a shot wide. Law took free kick duties after Lee had been forced off for treatment and flashed a curling effort just wide.

In the second half Lincoln spurned two great opportunities with midfielder Lee Frecklington guilty of blasting over with an empty net the easier target and then forcing Evans into a stunning block. Boulding too should have done better after a superb charge forward by Jones saw the on-loan man whip a great cross onto his head. Rob Burch did well to tip his header onto the post, but a little more power from Boulding would surely have resulted in the net bulging.

With both sides looking even Stuart made changes to try and force the winner; Peter Thorne was brought on for a disappointing Barry Conlon and then Dean Furman – back from injury – for Boulding with Daley moved up front. Some of the physical presence was lost, although Daley saw a long range effort superbly tipped over by Burch. Daley was then involved with the game’s moment of controversy moments earlier after latching onto Burch’s weak clearance and charging through, only to be hauled down by a defender who appeared to be the last man but who got away with only a yellow card. Like last week City had a referee keen to let things go – Lee Beevers, who had already been booked in the first half, deserved a yellow card for a nasty high challenge on Jones just after the break – but the hope was, like when City had been on the wrong end of a similar incident against the MK Dons last month – the resulting free kick from Lee would sail in. Instead it smacked against the wall and the chance was wasted, it was that sort of afternoon.

As with last week’s blank against Chester, a goal could easily have come but just as the defence seems to looking stronger the attack isn’t looking as sharp. Boulding was a willing runner, but Conlon needs to show more and was once again caught offside and gave away free kicks too often. It doesn’t currently look a good strike partnership, but then it did earlier in the season. Thorne is certain to start against Morecambe on Sunday – Stuart rotating his strikers with two games in three days – and a return to goalscoring form for City’s top scorer is badly needed.

The problem for Stuart is the lack of options he currently has. Daley was poor but it would have been mad to haul off a player who can be such a threat even when not on top form – a Chris Brandon or Joe Colbeck waiting on the bench and the situation is different. Kyle Nix can play out wide but doesn’t have the pace which is needed on the break in tight away games such as this. It will also be interesting to see if Stuart succeeds with his plan to capture a fourth striker and what sort of different option they will present. Jones can play up front and, with him playing so well right now, a permanent move could give the City boss those additional options. Such thoughts will occupy his mind with the January transfer window due to re-open next week.

For some supporters, debates about his own capabilities seem to be all the rage. Astonishingly the final whistle was met with a smattering of boos from some City fans and I had the ‘pleasure’ of listening to one supporter rant that “he has to go”. Go online and you’ll find some fans argue we should sack him and appoint Jackson. No, there’s no punchline to follow – they are being serious. No doubt such arguments will continue but it should be remembered it’s very much a minority making a disproportionate amount of noise.

This was a disappointing result and slightly disappointing performance, but the game itself was great to watch and the atmosphere largely fantastic. I’m tired of people spoiling games by booing and screaming abuse and I’m tired of these people having more of a say over how this club should progress than they deserve.

The half way point of the season will be reached after Sunday’s game and City should end 2008 in a great position to make 2009 its year. Finding that extra is the immediate challenge and Stuart will look for the answers in January – from both the transfer market and the treatment room.

The decision on City comes at Christmas – Bradford City vs Chester City Preview

Recall this time last year – dear reader – and remember the questions about Stuart McCall and his team which had broken out of a losing run that would put Paul Ince to shame but were a long way from impressing with a scrappy team culled together from free transfers and loan players showing few signs of becoming a capable side.

Peter Thorne was a malingerer, Willy Topp the great hope and Joe Colbeck a guy you send out on loan. How times have changed and how last year’s festive period changed them.

The Boxing Day 2-1 win over Lincoln City – Barry Conlon scuffing the winner in the last minute – built on a good performance in the rain at Chesterfield – and showed a City team with Omar Daley starting to find form and Colbeck energised that could compete with the spirited teams in the division.

A Referee cost City in the 3-1 defeat to Hereford but the impressive display cemented the feeling that City could now start a run for bigger and better things which has continued to this day. In the last 365 days the Bantams have not been as lowly as we were at the start of December 2007.

So a year on and the Bantams – unarguably in a better position – face similar questions and have a similar need for a thrust of improvement although while twelve months ago the impetuous was to move away from mid-table and relegation to flirtatious play-off lower reaches now it is impressed upon Stuart McCall and his charges that with more than the play-off team what is Bradford City will be a promotion side.

Such comments are – in the opinion of this writer – unduly harsh on a Bantams side that has suffered at the hands of footballing fatalism more than most this season. Not a team in the land could survive the loss of the entire midfield and two replacements: Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman, Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck have been simultaneously out of action; without a dip in results and while some suggest that Stuart McCall’s inability to have his team hang into the top three places on a weekly basis is a criticism of the manager I would suggest that it is credit to him.

The injury situation at City should have crippled the team – Steve Jones, Nicky Law Jnr, Tom Clarke and Kyle Nix is no one’s dream midfield – but each week the Gaffer has sent out a team that while bettered was never battered and the kind of excuses that formed under the likes of Jim Jefferies were never allowed to take route. McCall’s nemesis spent much of the Premiership talking about injuries to David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien yet Stuart’s red cross list has been worse and concentrated in an area of the field position but never been allowed to become a self-perpetuating reason for defeat.

The jury – one could say – is out on McCall but one suspects in modern football the jury never returns – or only does so retroactively as it did on Paul Jewell who like McCall build a side with character that competed but was criticised for being commensurate rather than dominant. I would suggest that the improvement of the last year suggests that McCall is performing well and that if someone were to try ascribe this to the injection of funds in the summer as a suggestion that anyone could perform as well give the cash I would point them to 17th place Manchester City. Resources are only useful once marshal and marshalling of resources are perhaps best seen in the fullness of a season – injuries and all.

The midfield of woe is returning to fitness with Lee Bullock and Dean Furman both playing forty five minutes in the reserves. Both are looking at this weekend’s game with Chester as a way back before the Christmas break and one may suspect that McCall will give them the same type of “a half each” run out for the first team as they received on Tuesday afternoon for the stiffs. Doing so would allow Paul McLaren to retain his place and let Nicky Law Jnr shift right to the flank which he delivered such a sweet ball to Michael Boulding from last time at Valley Parade. Omar Daley’s return on the left last week at Brentford shows how important he has become to the team – a contrast to fifteen months ago and a change he credits McCall with.

McCall though credits Daley, Colbeck and his attacking three of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon as being his entertainers and driving his City team on this term. He looks for another forward in the transfer window – reports that he was interested in Chesterfield’s out of contract Jamie Ward would seem to be wishful now Jewell’s Derby are interested – and sees strong attacking as the way forward. Thorne and Boulding are expected to start against Chester.

With this Keegan-esque mindset the defence that causes problems to some would seem to be less of an issue to the manager. Paul Arnison’s long awaited return for TJ Moncur should see the more attacking – or at least better crossing – full back in opposite Luke O’Brien who continues to perform well at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke – along with keeper Rhys Evans – will look on the McCall’s philosophy with the attitude that they aim if not for clean sheets then for one fewer concession than the other team and while statistics suggest that they could improve the Dagenham game showed that while it conceded in a mistake the back line did not buckle under the pressure.

Pressure that is not expected to be as great against a Chester City side who have scored only nine on the road this season and will no doubt end the season thankful of the deductions other clubs have suffered. A win over Chester precedes another Boxing Day game with Lincoln, a home tie with Morecambe and the visit of Shrewsbury. All tough in their own ways but all winnable for the Bantams who recall players to fitness and look to the sturdy first half of the season to set up a run for promotion in the second.

The decision on City – and most probably on Stuart McCall the manager – comes this Christmas.

Unfamiliar familiarity – Rotherham United v Bradford City – League Two preview

This is the seventh season out of eight to feature Rotherham away on Bradford City’s fixture list, though there will be nothing familiar about Saturday’s trip.

The financial difficulties which the Millers have struggled to overcome during the last few years has resulted in a temporary move to Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium. With a running track around the pitch and the stands – of which for only one side is there a roof – positioned well back, it will certainly be a contrast from the intimacy of Millmoor.

For Rotherham the move was born out of necessity as Millmoor’s landlord, former Chairman Ken Booth, demanded too much rent and not enough access to its facilities for it to be financially viable. Attendances have slightly dipped through the six-mile relocation, though with only two home defeats so far it’s clear the players have adapted to new surroundings quickly.

For us Bradford City supporters, it should be a case of being thankful for our lot. Clearly the Bantams have suffered from financial troubles in recent years and the two relegations since leaving the Premier League can be blamed on it to varying degrees. Yet both City’s spells in administration came before the sort of point deductions which have been inflicted on Rotherham for three consecutive seasons. As for a former chairman owning the ground and the struggle to make rent payments, a move to Odsal looked a possibility back in February 2004.

Which goes to show that, if there can be positives to take from what this club went through, it’s the timing of it. Pity the marketing men at Rotherham, who this summer had to work out how to sell season tickets for a club which had moved to a nearby city, which wasn’t fully guaranteed to be allowed to continue by the Football League and who even then started with a 17 point deduction. The self-righteous whining from Leeds United supporters last season has ensured many of us hold little sympathy for clubs who break the rules by getting in such debt, but things could have been much worse for us during those dark days and at the time that didn’t seem possible.

For City at least, such difficult times are now part of the history books and they approach the only proper League Two Yorkshire Derby of the season with strong promotion aspirations. Last week’s defeat to Wycombe may have tempered confidence among supporters, but manager Stuart McCall will know the true quality of a good side is how it responds to set backs. So far this season the players have made a good fist of it.

The team is likely to be similar after Stuart’s attempts to bring in a right winger on loan drew a blank. Rhys Evans keeps goal behind a back four slowly recapturing its early season solidness. Paul Heckingbottom came through the reserves unscathed midweek and Stuart may consider giving Luke O’Brien a breather. TJ Moncur seems to be comfortably first choice ahead of Paul Arnison on the right and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke continue in the centre.

The other Clarke will continue in midfield. City’s line ups this season have largely not featured an out and out holding midfielder and the hope has to be that Paul McClaren, alongside Tom, can get forward more than he has been afforded to. Lee Bullock is close to a return to fitness and McClaren may be aware he needs to show more in order to keep his starting place. Nicky Law will play on the right with Omar Daley likely to provide the team’s main source of attacking inspiration from the left.

Up front Michael Boulding will be hoping to get the nod over Barry Conlon, with the latter still sweating over a new contract offer in the new year. There are some concerns over Peter Thorne’s recent performances, but there’s no one you’d rather have on the end of any decent chances the rest of the team can create during the game.

Rotherham are not without their problems having lost experienced keeper Andy Warrington to injury and with only Steven Cann, who played his first senior game midweek and was on the end of a 3-0 defeat, to call upon between the sticks. Manager Mark Robins too has been left frustrated by the loan market and, unless any late attempts prove successful, it will be a big day for the 20-year-old South African. They also have their own Omar, who is perhaps more Willy Topp.

One familiar face will be Alex Rhodes, who joined the Millers from City during the summer. The winger was an excellent proposition on his day, as Rotherham themselves know only too well, but lacked consistency. Had Stuart kept him on it’s likely he’d have barely figured for City this season up until Joe Colbeck’s injury, so his regularity for Rotherham suggests City would be finishing above them even if they’d not suffered that heavy points deduction.

Like City, Rotherham will be aiming to put their financial troubles behind them but the impact which the credit crunch has had on so many parts of UK life has yet to be realised in football. With the UK heading for recession tough times may be ahead and typically its lower league clubs who will suffer.

If United had trouble with season tickets this season what about the next, when people’s spending will become even tighter? This week Rotherham announced half-year season ticket prices which are still more expensive than it cost for a full City season ticket. If levels of support are to be maintained in 2009/10 season clubs are going to have to consider the sort of innovate pricing approach which has succeeded at Valley Parade, though that might be difficult for clubs like Rotherham to implement with money in short supply.

If City can march onto promotion this season they should have few problems retaining their support should they keep similar prices, which would once again leave us pleased with our timing and thankful for our lot.

Where we want to be – MK Dons v Bradford City – FA Cup 1st Round preview

The chances are that those of us at Stadium MK this Saturday will witness a City defeat – but I hope to still make the 162-mile journey home feeling happy.

I will be happy if I see commitment from those who don Claret and Amber for this FA Cup 1st Round tie. Injuries, in midfield in particular, are severely limiting Stuart McCall’s options. There are already plenty of excuses which can be made if defeat occurs, but if those who are fit to play show anything less than full commitment towards the cause of City’s name appearing in Sunday’s 2nd Round draw those excuses will lose credibility.

I will be happy if Stuart is able to learn something from the game. Those injuries allow others their opportunity and, with seven substitutes allowed in the FA Cup, there will be plenty queuing up to take it. Injuries to Dean Furman and Kyle Nix – added to Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon – open up a hole in midfield. Stuart may move Nicky Law across to partner Paul McClaren in the centre, which should leave Leon Osborne or Willy Topp battling to take the vacant right midfield role.

Osborne made his debut for City against Millwall in May 2007, but got off on the wrong foot with Stuart that summer which hindered progress. Topp’s contribution this season has been two appearances from the bench. He played reasonably well out wide during pre-season, through Stuart may wish to bring him in up front tomorrow.

If Law is kept on the right, Luke Sharry could make his much-anticipated debut for City having impressed in pre-season and for the reserves this season. At the back Huddersfield’s refusal to let Tom Clarke play should mean a return for the other Clarke; though Paul Arnison could be recalled and TJ Moncur moved to the centre to partner Graeme Lee. Luke O’Brien, who made his senior debut in the FA Cup this season, will hope to recapture his promising form at left back, with Rhys Evans keeping goal.

Up front it seems unlikely Peter Thorne will be risked into action, with City’s top scorer seemingly picking up as many niggling injuries as goals. The in-form Barry Conlon should partner Michael Boulding, although don’t rule out the 4-3-3 formation adopted against Leeds in the Johnstones Paint Trophy which would see Boulding and Omar Daley assume the wide forward roles. Otherwise the latter will return from suspension in his familiar left wing role.

The MK Dons are far from unfamiliar opposition and it’s barely six months since they sealed the League Two title with victory at Valley Parade. Currently 4th in League One, they are nicely set up to achieve Julian Rhodes’ ambition for City of back-to-back promotions.

And that’s where the real happiness could be gained, even if City make it a hat trick of first round cup exits this season. They are not there yet, but we hope this City side can be as good as last year’s MK Dons and follow their path towards the Championship. That doesn’t mean we’ll be good enough to win, particularly with significant injuries, but we want to at least see our team compete with them.

There were many impressive facets to the MK Dons side which beat us at home April, right up there was their resilience. We travel South in the hope of an upset, but even if the best our patched-up side can achieve is to run the Dons close it would speak volumes of the character and strength of this squad. There’s no excuse for the players who’ll get a rare opportunity to show anything less than their all, but that should go for the remaining regulars too.

Whatever happened to Plan B?

When Barry Conlon checked back to see it the header that gave City a 1-0 win over Bury we all checked back a month or so to when City were in trouble.

Back then Barry was getting booed and City were on the way out of the promotion picture. The reason for this was Stuart McCall who was tactically naive or he lacked a plan B or both.

The jungle drums that beat were against him but sound distant now. McCall was never the hapless legend afforded a job above his talents that his detractors would have him portrayed but neither does he have a Midas touch either. Sometimes he gets things right and sometimes he does not and it seems that the former out weigh the latter.

McCall suffers as all managers do from the wisdom of crowds where broad judgements are given to fine situations. It is very much a tool in the modern arsenal of a manager to be able to filter the signal from the massive noise that pervades every decision one makes.

McCall’s continued use of Conlon shows this skill is growing in the City boss. The manager wants Barry in the squad but not the side and while backing him to beat boos and be useful he is careful not to overplay his importance at the expense of his plans for Michael Boulding.

McCall does the same with TJ Moncur who’s presence in the side over Paul Arnison is a mystery to me but not to the manager who ultimately is charged with maintaining cold judgement when all around are dealing in hyperbole.

The calls for Barry to start will increase but Stuart must keep his own council on the hard working, prolific Boulding despite the noises around him and the emotion of Conlon, Willy Topp et al.

Perhaps one day McCall will join a club where if need not worry about damaging his legend status – his comments at City have shown on occasion an impressive willingness to wield the power he has – and his relationship with supporters will differ.

Then he may be aggressive as well full throated in his defence of a Conlon but for now he has the lesson of filtering out all except performance and the justification that comes with winning.

Now the manager faces a different set of tests with Joe Colbeck out for two months and the continued motivation of Omar Daley now paramount but those tasks begin from second in the division.

Plan B? Tactics? Barry Conlon? Everything becomes right with a win.

The graveyard and how to avoid it – Grimsby Town vs Bradford City preview

Soon Grimsby Town will move town – to Grimsby from Cleethorpes so lets not expect the uproar that Wimbledon and Milton Keynes caused – and when they do few will miss the oft touted coldest place in football that is Blundell Park.

It was this ground that saw two City players sign off their Bantams careers in vastly different circumstances.

The week before Christmas a single pass from Chris Waddle gave City an equaliser in a dour game at this ground with the cold win whipping off the North Sea and Gordon “Sid” Cowans was substituted after an hour or so too a ring of boos. He would not play for City again and to many – if not most – it was good riddance.

Years later the Bantams under Nicky Law won a free kick on the edge of the box which was deftly, carefully, accurately floated into the top corner of the goal for the only score of the game and the last contribution on the field of Benito Carbone.

Stuart McCall takes his City team to this curious graveyard hoping for a rebirth.

The Bantams are in what has been dubbed a bad six. Six games with only one win and with so few minutes in the lead that it is hard to recall a period of Bantam enjoyment. Luton Town, Accrington Stanley and Gillingham saw City lead less than half an hour.

In contrast the home side would kill to have six good games having half a dozen points from draws and defeats that have caused a change of manager to Mike Newell. Newell’s guidance has seen the Mariners come within a minute of a win and the question seems to be if the new manager buzz faded when Luton equalised on Tuesday night or if they can carry it over to this game with City.

The Bantams come into the game with a new face – Tom Clarke – who will look to unseat Matthew Clarke from his role in the side partnering Graeme Lee in front of Rhys Evans in goal. The full back question continues on the right hand side with some – me included – favouring Paul Arnison over TJ Moncur and others not doing. Luke O’Brien is expected to keep his left back berth with Paul Heckingbottom injured. O’Brien’s improvement in recent weeks has been a bright spot.

The midfield of Dean Furman and Paul McLaren are expected to have Joe Colbeck and the returning Omar Daley – back from the bench – on the wings with instructions to feed the wide men more.

Peter Thorne is rejoined by twice former Grimbarian Michael Boulding who returns from injury and displaces Barry Conlon. Louis Horne presses for a place on the bench

McCall goes back to, and loses sight of, basics

Having apologised in public for underestimating the quality of City’s display last week Stuart McCall had clearly had a word in one of two ears before the Bantams started the battle for nine points in a week.

For forty-five minutes the Bantams did simple things impressively and should have been taking the first three of those nine points on the road. City faced Gillingham on Saturday, go to Darlington on Monday, and Grimsby on Friday and the Bantams are very much within – as opposed to ahead – of the pack leading League Two.

It was noticeable how the Bantams defensive line smashed the ball out of play when under pressure. how often Dean Furman and Paul McLaren got on the ball in midfield, how Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley moved wide when needed and came back when not. The simple things that when done well result in results.

So they would have over Gillingham had they been maintained for the full game. The Bantams battled with a Gills side who deserve a huge mention for playing an open game rather than trying to kill off the game when they arrived at VP and who would get their rewards. Those rewards looked distant when a free kick from Paul McLaren was headed towards goal by Furman – who had his best game for City thus far – and after a save and a scramble was smashed in by Peter Thorne for his tenth of the season.

All of which was City edging ahead rather than dominating but was a good return for the opening and deflated the visitors. That deflation saw Joe Colbeck batter in an impressive slip inside by McLaren from inside the box as McCall switched his wingers to allow the tired Daley to charge at the booked Barry Fuller but in that combination the problems that City would have in the second half – and had all day – were shown.

Colbeck and Daley are a quality pair of wide players and good enough for any team in this league but they are only best value when they are supported by full backs and today they were often left disconnected, flailing ahead without the back up a winger needs.

TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien were those full backs with Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom on the bench and while O’Brien did not do much wrong at the back he offered little coming forward. Moncur – who replaced Paul Arnison in the side five games ago when the number two was injured in the Bournemouth game – was troubled while defending and failed to connect with Colbeck coming forward with unpredictable results.

From a statistical point of view since Arnison was injured five matches ago City have shipped ten goals and scored eight. Watch the team one sees Colbeck taking up good positions and being ignored by Moncur most of the time and the full back lashing in ineffective crosses. Arnison was criticised by some supporters but his crossing was better and he provided options for Colbeck which Moncur does not and after the defence got back to basics so – one hopes – will McCall.

Only once was Daley able to push the ball back to Luke O’Brien for support in attacking positions. In wins like Exeter The Full Pauls were a major part in making sure that Thorne and Michael Boulding had supply to score and that Daley and Colbeck had players to team up with that they could rely on to be predictable and constant.

As it is Thorne and Boulding feasted on scraps today and the game should have been beyond Gillingham’s reach but Simeon Jackson pulled one back for the Gills after getting beyond the pairing of Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee following head tennis and high feet and smashing home. Jackson’s pace troubled City all day but in the second half the Bantams put as much into their defeat a the visitors did.

The simple things that were done in the first half faded. Defenders began to try to put foot on ball rather than clearing, pinging the ball over the midfield and into the arms of a referee and linesman who flagged for offside incorrectly three or four times as the ball was pumped up to Thorne and Boulding. City looked alive and dangerous when the ball was brought through wide but neutered by the linesman’s flag and the defending of the men from Kent when whacked long. City stopped doing the shorter passing, the easy play, that had served so well now and previously.

So too often the Bantams wasted the ball and turned over when in dangerous positions for the want of application falling too easily into the trap of believing the besting the offside flag was the only way to score. When Peter Thorne was substituted with ten minutes left he arched his back in agony knowing the game was not won. He was right.

Despite Mark Bentley’s deserved dismissal for a two footed challenge on Paul McLaren too many City players seemed too ready to so the most obvious – rather than the most simple – thing and point to the man in the middle as wronging them.

So when Jackson burst through and scored an equaliser the Bantams seemed a long way from the team that had done the simple things well in the first half and the team that could roar into games earlier in the season. Five minutes if injury time saw the Bantams find that roar with Colbeck hitting a shot to the top corner that was excellently palmed away, Graeme Lee smashing a header from teh resulting corner against the bar and Willy Topp hooking the ball over his shoulder and the bar as City went close to a winner.

However in simple terms the Bantams allowed two points to slip away today in the way that Accrington did last week and did so when losing sight of the basics which they had done so well.

Darlington on Monday and everyone – players and management – should be looking at the things that work most often most of the time.

How do we get it all back? – Accrington Stanley vs Bradford City Preview

So how do we get back to winning ways?

Well why don’t we put Paul Arnison back in the team. He has been out for two and a half games and in that time City have been in the lead for about five minutes when we drew with Luton last week and have lacked a bit of something going down the right. Of course the people who had a pop at Barry Conlon had been warming up for a go at the right back. I wonder if they will put the not winning together with him not playing?

Joe Colbeck has missed him and the help he gives coming forward for crosses and you can bet that Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding have missed the supply and with all three playing on Saturday along with Arnison the team will welcome him back.

At the back Arnison joins up with Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee who need to get back to the commanding ways of early season. Those two had been clearing out everything in the air so that Luton goal will have been a blow. Paul Heckingbottom will miss having been sent off last week so Luke O’Brien is expected to start at left back.

Paul McLaren and Dean Furman might find laying deeper away from home a bit more rewarding than trying to batter down the door of Luton last week and both play in the middle. Both strikers are expected to play and rightly so. When they stop putting away chances we will have a problem but at the moment they are not getting enough.

Omar Daley has been providing a good few chances but he misses Saturday suspended as well. Willy Topp is on stand by to replace him on the left hand side after returning to the reserves and showing readiness. If every a player needed a goal…

Kyle Nix is also an option. Nix looked very good very often last season and some people are calling for him to be put into the team. This could be his time. Certainly McCall seems to be favouring him.

If ever a team needed a goal. An early one please cause the only thing wrong with City is big defences and a lack of confidence and goals do wonders for that. Is that the only thing that City need to get back to winning?

It is Stuart McCall needing some more of that tactics stuff? Does he need to do a 433 with Willy Topp hanging back behind the strikers to create and Colbeck tucked in? I doubt it cause wingers have got us to where we are now and where we are now is not that bad.

Maybe it is getting rid of Barry? How do you get rid of a player? Why would you? Anyone who thinks like that probably won’t be there tomorrow.

Because that is the thing about City on the road. They moaning, the booing, the general “I dont wanna be next to these idiots”ness of home games is gone and it is people who put into watching City and get something out of it.

Maybe that is how City will get back to winning ways. A good hearted away support making loads of noise and getting behind the boys to a win that we can take back to miserable old Valley Parade where you get booed for drawing but bring the confidence too and win there too.

Funny how these days the away form has to prop up the home.

The clouds that form over us – Shrewsbury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

Once again one could be forgiven for thinking that Bradford City were going into a weekend fixture with the heaviest of black clouds over the club rather than playing the team a place below in a game in which the winners end up in the promotion area.

Having heard from various sources that City’s manager was inept, that the assistant was ruining what the manager did and that some of the players were simply good good enough and need to be got rid of it would be interesting to see what reaction a good result at Shrewsbury would have.

By reaction of course I talk about supporters. Within the club Stuart McCall’s job is to minimise defeats and keep player grounded in wins. A reaction in the dressing room akin to that in the stadium and we really are in trouble.

As it is by five we could be top again. Rhys Evans keeps goal but his back four is changed with TJ Moncur coming in for the injured Paul Arnison. Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee are in the middle with Paul Heckingbottom on the left.

Omar Daley continues in front of Heckingbottom as Chris Brandon recovers and Joe Colbeck will look to continue his impressive form on the right.

Dean Furman – rested from the reserves – may make a first start with one of Lee Bullock or Paul MaLaren stepping down, probably the former as McCall feels the need to add steel to his midfield for the visit to the other highly fancied club in League Two.

Shrewsbury have spent the money raised when Joe Hart made his England debut triggering a half million release clause in the deal that took him to Manchester City on Grant Holt who is am impressively troublesome striker but with the likes of Michael Symes and David Hibbert to pair him with the onus seems to fall on City to snuff out the expensive man in the way clubs would mark tight Dean Windass and not be troubled by whomever was alongside him – a role both Hibbert and Symes took.

Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding would both have been better partners for Windass – who is rumoured to be thinking over an offer to manage Grimsby Town – and both are in the same bracket as Holt entitled feared strikers.

Come five one of there teams will have laid down a marker for promotion. Come next season the bookies expect both to be in League One.

Winning at dominoes

Brian Clough once said that despite the crap talked by people who didn’t know how to win a game of dominoes, it was players who lost football matches. Kevin Keegan – for his messianic effect – said there was little he could do once the players have gone over the white line.

Both Clough and Keegan made good on what, at the time, seemed limited resources by the application of effort. Both played for England. When Joe Colbeck – one of City’s brighter players today – was 12 the Bournemouth number 8 was smashing in a goal to put England on the way to a 2-0 win over Colombia. Anderton got the first and the second was scored by David Beckham who usurped the oft injured Anderton for country. Beckham went one way and Anderton’s career took him to this sunny afternoon at Valley Parade with a team relegated and relegation prospects because of financial problems.

City’s support today was in good voice and backed the team fully but today the Bantams’ players lost the game. Collectively the level of effort was not high enough to win this game.

City started slowly, facing a visiting side who dropped Anderton into a shielding role in front of the back four and played with only Jeff Goulding up front. The Bantams’ midfield stood off Anderton and the always excellent Sammy Igoe all afternoon allowing the pair to pick out runners and use pace to break. Danny Hollands got the first goal of the afternoon doing just that.

Which is not to say that the Bantams played bad football – some of the passing moves were impressive and edged on opening up the visitors with Paul McLaren picking up the runs of Michael Boulding – but edging is not opening and the commitment that was seen in last week’s second half was lacking.

Nevertheless a second half riposte seemed to be on the cards when Anderton missed a pass and then was not strong enough to keep Colbeck away allowing the young City winger to power through and fire home.

The second half saw more of the same 90% football that the first had and while the likes of Colbeck, Daley and Boulding motored the bit extra – that commitment that sees a player take full responibility rather than waiting for others to create – never materialised.  Paul Arnison – who limped off in the first half – was missed on the right when Colbeck came inside hunting for the ball and everything seemed out of sorts with McLaren and Graeme Lee both being replaced during second half which were lost when Goulding all too easily converted Hollands’ cross which came from another swift counter-attack.

Jason Pearce added a third from a corner at the end and the visitors enjoyed a comprehensive away win with City’s reply being a Boulding shot that pinged off the bar and not a massive effort save Barry Conlon’s second half cameo which saw him put not one foot wrong.

Which is not to say that the players were bathed in shame or are to be jeered until one’s throat is sore, just that every football match has to be won no matter who the opposition is and today they did not do enough to win this game. Manager speak for this is “they let themselves down”.

Perhaps they did or perhaps they were just bested. Jimmy Quinn sent his side out with a plan for sure but they also had hearts full and Anderton typified that spirit. God knows why he is playing – he surely does not have to financially nor can one imagine the blast from the middle of League One to the foot of League Two were part of his plan but he seemed to simply enjoyed passing the ball, making himself available and generally playing a good game of footie. The enjoyment, the zest, the desire to play well was lacking for the Bantams. Too many City players today thought the game was won in the dressing room and so it was lost on the field.

Little more to say then save talk of another Referee Mr David Webb who used two rule books – one in which Omar Daley is booked for diving but Lee Bradbury is not and Paul McLaren gets a yellow for a clumsy tackle but Anderton escapes a warning – and a hope that next week’s trip to Shrewsbury who could knock the Bantams out of the top three tomorrow afternoon sees more application.

Flying colours

In the end the result disguised the fact it had been Bradford City’s biggest test of the season.

Going in at half time a goal behind having collectively played average, supporters unrecognising and undermining efforts, a disgruntled manager to face and the first questions over their ability to muster a promotion challenge – the players had much to prove.

An hour later they were leaving the pitch to wholehearted applause after a second half performance Stuart McCall would label “awesome”. Quickly finding an equaliser and not looking back, the players found a previously unused high gear to notch three more goals through some devastating attacking football.

All of which leaves City sitting top of the league and, while it may be early days, coming 11 years to the day of the last time a divisional summit was reached after August – a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough in the old Division One – shows it’s a rare enough occurence to enjoy. Now the challenge is to stay there.

If the second half blitz provided plenty of evidence to believe this could finally be City’s season, the doubts cast during a disappointing first half performance shouldn’t be discounted. Home games against so-called lesser sides have proved City’s Achilles Heel to often in recent years. Usually on the back of a decent away win, the expectation is more over how many goals will be scored than merely whether the game would be won.

Newly promoted sides can be dangerous to play early season, as City discovered a fortnight ago, but Exeter appeared content to keep men behind the ball and attack on the break. The initiative was there to be taken but, as chances were created and a feeling a goal would inevitably arrive grew, the warning signs which have formed part of so many home failings in recent years were again neglected. Grecians strikers Marcus Stewart and Adam Stansfield provided Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke with some uncomfortable moments, with one slip from Lee resulted in City’s crossbar rattling and Rhys Evans earlier been forced into an excellent tip over.

The Bantams had chances too, with an Omar Daley rocket from distance been touched onto the bar by keeper Paul Jones, but when the visitors went in front it was far from the shock it might have been considered at 3pm. Midfielder Matt Gill fired home via a post after Clarke woefully sliced a clearance into his path. It’s not the first time the former Darlington centre half has cost City a goal through poor distribution, but his steady second half recovery offered a reminder of the qualities which make him a firm fixture in the side. A mistake can be forgiven, if it’s not repeated.

Up until this point the game had been played out to a rather muted atmosphere, save from the Bradford End, but in response to going behind the volume dramatically increased from the home crowd. Not, sadly, in support of their team, but to complain and boo. Firstly a loud crash could be heard as hundreds of City fans seemingly threw their toys out of the pram in unison, then it was the players turn to take cover.

The eight minutes between Exeter scoring and the half time whistle were easily City’s worst, and it can be no coincidence it occurred with many City fans vocally criticising everything they did. I don’t understand the thought process which concludes everything must suddenly be bad just because we’d fallen behind. As City attacked in Exeter’s box one fan near me loudly screamed they were not capable of scoring so what was the point. “Stop playing long ball!” yelled another. Two minutes later City knocked the ball around patiently just inside Exeter’s half and the same person demanded the ball be “put into the box.”

At half time his assessment was that City had been “rubbish” but this was simply not true. Faint booing could be heard and I pondered how our old home failings emanate from more than just our players and wish we’d provide them support when they need it most. Still a mistake can be forgiven if it’s not repeated, right?

So the test was set up, and passed with flying colours. Stuart later revealed that at half time he’d told Joe Colbeck to up his game and spark the rest of the team into life and, while it’s testament to last season’s Player of the Year that such expectations can be placed on him, the fact he delivered in such style shows it’s not just Daley we should be worried about receiving bids for come January. Colbeck ignited by picking up the ball on half way and charging forward, beating three covering defenders and firing in a shot across goal which was tipped out of Thorne’s reach by Jones. Next time the former Leyton Orient keeper would not be so lucky.

Minutes later the ball was worked to Colbeck, who unleashed a stunning shot from distance that Jones could only palm into Thorne’s path. City’s top scorer athletically shifted his body into a position to tap in the rebound and City were level. As the home fans roared in a mixture of approval and relief I thought back to the words I’d heard just as Colbeck’s shot flew towards goal from someone nearby, “What are you doing shooting from there?”

Four minutes later City went in front after another well-worked attack. Paul Arnison was invited to cross and his beautiful delivery was met by Michael Boulding at the far post, who headed home. Finally Exeter had to commit more players forward and they continued to pose awkward questions at City’s defence, though the likelihood of more City goals was always there.

The killer third arrived after Daley’s great close control and clever pass set Colbeck away and, though his low shot across the keeper looked to be drifting narrowly wide of the opposite post, Thorne prodded the ball across the line to make sure. Not the greatest of his eight goals this season, but the kind of poaching which leaves him on course to smash the 20-goal barrier by Christmas should he steer clear of injuries.

Daley’s contribution should not be devalued and he laid on the fourth after another lighting burst forward – was I the only one who felt a bit sorry for Exeter full back Steve Tully in facing the in-form Jamaican? – and clever setting up of Boulding to fire home his second. There could have been more with Boulding and substitute Barry Conlon going close before the end. If the home side had ended the first half desperate for the whistle, it was now the visitors anxious to be put out of their misery.

So top with only 40 games to hold out. The squad’s ability to cope with injuries and suspensions has yet to be proved, but as a settled side continues to grow so to do the expectations of what it can achieve. Few teams in this division will cope with City’s attack on this form and it should be noted that worse sides than Exeter are still due at Valley Parade.

Another test passed but, increasingly, it’s the rest of the division who’ll be considering the Bantams their biggest.

Aldershot Town vs Bradford City – League Two 2008/2009 preview

Aldershot Town are on of those “When we were…” teams. They look at their current surroundings – back in League Two – and compare and contrast with City’s time in the Premiership. “When we were in the Vauxhall Square Third Division West this lot were in the Premiership.”

It is motivation and it is true. Teams like Aldershot and Morecambe have risen as we have fallen and to do so they have by in large been organised and managed correctly much as we were on our ascent to the top flight. They look at our high watermark and compare it to their low and it gives them spirit which we must overcome.

Aldershot’s return is welcomed. They are a club who suffered at the hands of disinterest and bad chairman but sorted themselves out and went the long route back to the League. The results thus far have been a win, a draw and a defeat at much fancied Shrewsbury and they are becoming known for a dogged resistance. They did have former Bantam Ben Starosta on loan but he has left the club. His name aside they are a squad of honest names many of whom have risen with the club.

Looking to rise with Bradford City is Dean Furman who signs on loan from Rangers but is not expected to start the game with Paul McLaren recovering from his dead leg to partner Lee Bullock in midfield. Expect Furman’s debut after an hour or so to bolster the often flagging midfield. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley keep places on the flanks but as Chris Brandon returns to training Daley will feel the breath of a replacement on his neck.

The back five of goalkeeper Rhys Evans. Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom as full backs and Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee in the middle is immutable as is the strike two of Michael Boulding and five goal Peter Thorne although Barry Conlon’s five in one game in the reserves will see him sit on the bench with confidence.

Good teams, and the season so far suggests City are one, pick themselves.

Living up to the hype…

City’s highly impressive start to the league season continued as they maintained their 100% record to cast aside last season’s playoff finalists Rochdale.

This was the sort of clinical win that really gives us justified hope that City are real contenders this season.

Rochdale proved to be very sticky opponents. In fact they dominated much of the play in terms of possession and threatening attacks. But they critically lacked the killer instinct in front of goal, with £60,000 ex Halifax striker Jon Shaw really disappointing, and justifying Stuart’s unwillingness to part with any funds to secure his signature.

A quick glance at the statistics from the game shows that Rochdale had plenty of shots at goal, but failed to get even one of them on target.

Omar Daley had a good early chance as he took possession of the ball with plenty of space on the left hand side of the penalty area, cut inside to the centre, skipped past a defensive challenge, but blasted straight at Dale keeper Russell. But if truth be told, Rochdale had much the better of the early exchanges.

Their build up play was excellent attacking the Kop , and forced City into one or two hairy moments the back. Too often did Arnison allow crosses to come in from the left hand side and threateningly cross across goal. But Dale failed to deliver the goal that their possession and build up play probably deserved.

City edged in front on 20 when Daley released Peter Thorne on the right hand side of the box. The veteran striker then whipped in a perfectly executed pinpoint cross right onto the head of Micheal Boulding, who headed firmly down to celebrate his first Bradford goal.

Unperturbed by conceding, Rochdale continued to press for the following 15 minutes, but again lacked cutting edge. And they were stunned when Paul McClaren whipped in a brilliant free kick from the left that was nodded in perfectly at the back post by an unmarked Peter Thorne who doubled City’s advantage with a header from close range. The irrepressible Thorne has had a stunning start to the season and is already establishing himself as a legend among the City faithful.

There was still much work to do in the second half, and City did it extremely well defensively. Clarke and Lee grew in stature in the second half, and both Heckingbottom and Arnison carrying out their defensive duties admirably. Heckingbottom in particular had an excellent game – and nearly scored a collectors item goal with a brilliant run in the first half!

Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley didn’t have their most productive games offensively, but in the second half, both showed a desire and willingness to track back defensively to help out their full backs. Their effort did not go unnoticed.

Lee Bullock didn’t really get involved enough for my liking – he had very much an “Eddie Johnson type” game. McClaren seemed to stroll through the game in a pedestrian like fashion without really impressing (apart from the excellent free kick) before going off with a knock.

In a rare second half counter attack, Micheal Boulding raced clear with intent. With Conlon lurking at the back post, Boulding ignored the big Irishman and struck a brilliant low left foot shot that beat the keeper, hit the inside of the post, and rolled across the goal line out for a goal kick. Desperately unlucky was the impressive Boulding , who was always willing to run beyond the defensive back four and produced numerous excellent flicks for Thorne to feed on. Their newly formed striking partnership is looking extremely promising.

With time ticking on , McCall basically extinguished any chance of City scoring again by leaving Barry Conlon on his own up front. TJ Moncur came on as part of a five man midfield that was the kill the game off as a contest. Not even the player that outdid City twice last season – Adam Le Fondre, could change the course of the game. He was unlucky late on with a strike that bounced off the cross bar.

But in truth, on reflection over the 90 minutes, City were comfortable and had quite convincingly cast aside the much fancied Rochdale.

They say the makings of a successful team is how they react to defeat. That hellish rainy night at Legoland has not impacted our team and what we are setting out to do in the league. We have followed up that crushing defeat with 2 wins, 4 goals and 2 clean sheets. And even in the game against Huddersfield, we more than held our own for 60 minutes.

The way the team have battled back at Macclesfield, and now against a very good Rochdale team proves that we really are worthy of the League Two hype this year. We have been excellent in every department, and if we can keep that up consistently this season, there is no doubt we will end up as Champions. Inside of sulking about losing to our local rivals we have put on two excellent displays.

Can we keep it up? I think so. City are the real deal this time round and, given the evidence of our nearly fully fit team so far, you would be foolish to bet on them finishing outside the top three.

The important and exciting thing this season is that every position seems to be covered squad wise so that even if injuries become a factor, we have good players who can step in. If Thorne or Boulding are injured, Topp, Boulding (R) or Conlon (or maybe not?!) can step up. If Omar Daley is showing inconsistent form, Joe Colbeck can step in on the right. If Lee Bullock is out injured again, the hungry Luke Sharry wlll want to grab a first team opportunity with both hands. If Matt Clarke’s decision making is called into question at the back, Mark Bower will slot in bringing his experience at the club to the forefront.

These are the type of advantages and options that we have not had since 1999.

This is our season.

It has to be.

Bradford City vs Rochdale – League Two 2008/2009 preview

League Two has yet to take shape – unless you count the hope that the Bantams will stay at the top and the Alan Davies on QI way that some clubs hang at the bottom – but already City have made their intentions known by winning two on the trot. Rochdale – last year’s beaten play off finalists – offer a more stern test than Notts County and Macclesfield did.

Indeed Dale – who have spent longer in the 4th tier of English football than anyone – beat City twice 2-1 on the way to that Wembley final with the Valley Parade game ending Stuart McCall’s men’s slim playoff hopes.

Following Wembley Keith Hill’s men have spent money on Jon Shaw – who at one point interested City – and fancy themselves as promotion material and a comfy win over Barnet got those ambitions on track.

All of which recalls the glorious spirit of 1969 when Rochdale got promoted back to the third tier of English football having been placed in Division Four following the split in Divisions Three North. Dale were out of the bottom available league for five seasons before being relegated in 1974 – a season in which they won only twice. It is the club’s centenary year this term and they hope to celebrate with a second league promotion in one hundred years.

Dale have lost key man David Perkins since last season but retained the impressive Gary Jones and have a goalkeeper who the manager calls one of the finest passers in the football league.

The Bantams are expected to field the same starting eleven as beat Macclesfield last week with Rhys Evans in goal; Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Paul Heckingbottom at the back.

Joe Colbeck starts his first home game of the season on the right after having a hand in both Peter Thorne’s goals last week. Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock are the middle and Omar Daley is expected to line up on the left wing in the continued absence of Chris Brandon who not only tweaked his ankle to delay his debut this week but also moved back to a shiny new house in Bradford.

Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding start up front with Barry Conlon on the bench. Willy Topp will miss up to four weeks after getting injured in the reserves during the week.

A team game

Among the strong bluster of disapproval which resulted from Tuesday evening’s Carling cup nightmare at Huddersfield, there was one line of criticism which particularly stood out.

In response to manager Stuart McCall’s post-match omission that their League One opponents had been a class above during their 4-0 triumph, some argued that this shouldn’t have been the case because the summer recruitments – the majority from the division above – should leave us with a team which could hold it’s own in England’s third tier. Given the club’s ambition is be competing at the top end of League One next season; doubts were raised at the team’s ability to achieve it.

No one would argue Tuesday was anything other than woeful, but it was the way City collapsed having fallen behind – rather than his players capabilities – which will have concerned Stuart the most. It’s a squad still needing time to gel and, as a test of what it is capable of, playing Huddersfield was too much, too soon. Everyone can see we have good players, but it will take time to become a good team.

The basic surroundings of Moss Rose proved ideal for rebuilding battered pride and switching focus back to the season’s main objective of promotion from League Two. City will face tougher games over the coming months than a poor Macclesfield side could offer, but this comfortable victory will help build confidence for them.

Right from kick off, with City quickly winning possession and straight on the attack, it was clear the players were determined to make up for Tuesday’s disappointment. Two early goals made for a comfortable afternoon as City went up and down the gears, rarely threatening to lose grip of the game. If a more emphatic scoreline looked probable at one stage, it was still an impressive 90 minutes from the Bantams.

Unlike Tuesday, City played like a team. A team with an impressive forward line; Peter Thorne again the hero with a second double strike in two starts. The first a looping header from a delightful cross which flew into the far corner, the second a poacher’s effort after poor control by Silkmen defender Sean Hessey allowed him the chance. Last season’s top scorer had to wait until November to net his first goal and, with four already, the prospects of a bigger return this campaign look good.

Alongside him Michael Boulding looked more the part after an underwhelming full debut at the Galpharm. He made some impressive runs and took up clever positions. It might not be the kindest comparison, but he is the first City striker since Michael Branch with the ability to run the channels, popping up all over in and around the penalty area. The former Aston Villa striker had chances to open his Bantams account, most notably hitting the post in the second half.

A team with wingers who excite if also frustrate. Joe Colbeck returned from suspension and, while quiet by his standards, set up Thorne’s opener and played a part in his second. Omar Daley was back on form and terrorised Macclesfield’s shaky backline on several occasions. Just like against Notts County the week before, he almost scored from a mazy dribble which began in his own half, just taking too long to get in his shot after reaching the penalty area. Opposition managers will become increasingly wary of Omar’s threat on the break and, like Boulding, he was unlucky to see a second half effort come back off the woodwork.

A team with a capable central midfield. Lee Bullock hasn’t torn up any trees during his first two games this season, but caught the eye with an impressive display. Paul McLaren continues to play things simple and some his best work isn’t always noticed. It might not work every game, but the duo controlled the tempo and set up several attacks.

A team looking solid and mobile at the back. Macclesfield, who’s first half wretchedness was probably best summed up when, on the end of heavy pressure in their area, a defender managed to clear the ball to their striker on half way only for the flag to go up, showed more fight in the second. Substitutes Izak Reid and Francis Green made a difference, the latter unlucky not to pull a goal back after his shot was tipped over by the impressive Rhys Evans.

The home side had a strong penalty shout rejected, but otherwise found City’s defence too strong. Paul Arnison has been criticised for his performances so far, but defended efficiently and got forward well. On the opposite side Paul Heckingbottom has made a bright start to the season while Matt Clarke continues to look solid, his distribution improved from Tuesday.

But it’s his central defensive partner and club captain Graeme Lee who fans were raving about at the final whistle. His best moment in an outstanding display came in the second half when, with Macclesfield adopting manager Keith Alexander’s trademark tactics of pumping the ball into the box, he headed the ball clear four times in quick succession. Just like Peter Thorne with Dean Windass, Lee is showing there is life after a club legend and his on-looking predecessor, David Wetherall, would have been proud.

All of which ensured Macclesfield were out of ideas well before the end and City could have easily had two or three more to reflect their superiority. Billy Topp – who’s dominated the post-Huddersfield discussions – came off the bench for his first appearance of the season and looked sharp. A look at the unused subs is another reason to feel optimistic.

This is a team which isn’t fully there just yet, there were still moments where players could have done better and understandings still need developing. In the closing stages Evans and Daley had an argument after the Jamaican gave away the ball in a bad position and Lee, as captain, had to get involved. Daley has managed to lose his cool at some point in each game so far and while that might be a concern it’s also a sign he cares. As does the way Evans and Lee argued with the winger and other players helped to later calm him down by talking to him.

What sort of season City will enjoy is still unclear, but the indications are positive from the two league displays so far. This is team with great potential and, when it is up to full speed, should prove difficult to stop. Tuesday’s shocker will take time to forget, but this team looks capable of celebrating something far more significant than a place in the second round of the Cup come May.

Bragging rights and how to claim them

…and then the kick off and things started well for the Bantams with a fluidity of play that was inherited in possession from Saturday seeing the midfield pair of Lee Bullock and Paul MaLaren compete and then get the better of the centre of the park giving City ball.

The strike pair of Boulding and Conlon offered the midfield few outlets with Boulding too little a target and Conlon dropping off to take the ball into feet too close to the Town middle.

When it worked for City the pair linked with the big man finding the tricky feet of the little one and the nearest either side came to a break through came when Boulding got into the box and fired a rebound into the side netting. It did not work well very often.

That the League One team were restricted was in a large part down to Graeme Lee who for fifty odd minutes was the best player on the field by some distance. Fifty minutes in and Lee had is post concession hands on knees when a cross from the left had been tucked home by Jon Worthington.

Worthington headed home running between Lee and Matthew Clarke after Paul Arnison had been double teamed without Omar Daley’s help at the back. Daley had his other sort of game tonight following Saturday’s excellence and Joe Colbeck returns at the weekend.

City’s reaction to going a goal down was poor. Huddersfield’s realisation that getting tighter to the two midfielders would reduce up to hopeful balls to a struggling Conlon and an ineffective Boulding blunted City and from then on every time the Bantams gave the ball away there was danger.

One doubts Huddersfield will be as clinical and cutting as they were again all season but the magnitude of the scoreline had more to do with them enjoying the sort of game where players like Robbie Williams who have been blasting free kicks wildly for 12 months bend them top corner but when a team gives the ball away as often as City did they are asking to be punished and so it happened.

Composure was lacking and heads went down. The parity of performance, let alone score, of half time was hard to recall.

Peter Thorne came on but he finishes moves made by others and by that time such inventiveness was lost leaving Stuart McCall wondering where it all went wrong and more importantly how to put it all right again.

Football is a game of simple things the most basic of which is the need to keep the ball.

So bragging rights to Huddersfield fans or rather some of them. No, not the missing 7,500 who stayed at home but those who were replied to the customary chant from Bradford to our neighbours of “Have you seen the Premier League?” with the grotesque “Bradford bastards burning down.”

Sing it, don’t stop the guy next to you singing it. Don’t jeer the people who do sing it. If you fall into any of those camps you’ve got no right to claim any brag to anyone.

One down…

It sits with a deceptive confidence this crown of would be kings on the head for Bradford City. It shifts with unease for all.

City’s 2-1 win over Notts County could be the template for the season. The Bantams were worthy winners but by a yard and not a mile and at times nerves were evident in the stands and the players fell out of a rhythm they had used to control much of the game.

When in control too City looked ebullient and passed the ball around from player to player with a calm ease personified by new number four Paul McLaren who had the touch to take a second more on the ball than many other on the field and looked unhurried as he and Lee Bullock won the midfield battle for their first afternoon as a league partnership.

Last season we talked much about Stuart McCall’s attempts to find someone to play in the position and the style he still casts a long shadow over and in McLaren he has someone who can set the pace for the team and create the passing flow that the manager did ten and twenty years ago.

Yet McLaren and Bullock’s control in the game faded and City were left with a scoreline and an afternoon that was closer than the build up to the game would have suggested. On the walk to Valley Parade the atmosphere suggested that City would only need to turn up to win. This is never the case.

Every win has to be earned and this one was. The Bantams put pressure on once the game had settled into a patten and when Lee Bullock was freed past the defence by some excellent work on the right and unceremoniously bundled to the floor it was clear that City possessed the abilities that pre-season suggested and that the quality of Refereeing was not going to have increased in line with City.

As the FA start their “Respect (The Ref)” campaign they send to Valley Parade Mr Darren Drysdale of the five game ban for Dean Windass two seasons ago when the City striker shouted at him in the car park highlighting the problems of the campaign that tries to have respect given in reply to unreachableness, highhandedness and arrogance that marked today’s display and Drysdale’s interaction with Bradford City.

City’s pressure told when Paul Arnison – who enjoyed a great debut coming forward to support Omar Daley superbly – whipped a cross in for Peter Thorne to head in while running onto from inside the box leaving keeper Kevin Pilkinton flat footed and continuing his policy of filling his boots against the club he got a hat-trick against last time they were at Valley Parade.

However for all City’s slick passing County were not snuffed out with Delroy Facey – a late signing who had interested City – troublesome and Jamie Forester looking able. Quick reactions from Rhys Evans saw him sprinting off his line and clearing a ball out at the corner of the box. Evans spends most of his time as a goalkeeper shouting at his defenders and in that way he will do for me.

Also doing for me is Omar Daley who put in one of his best performances in a City shirt. He tried – and for all but a four minute sulking spell when someone had tugged his shorts succeeded in – integrating himself in the side McCall had built tracking back to match the pace of lively winger Myles Weston and unplayable when going forward.

In the first half his mazy dribbles had end points with short passes or – ten minutes from the whistle – cutting onto his left on the edge of the box and lashed a low drive which Pilkington pushed wide. Barry Conlon put the scramble from the resultant corner into the side netting and City could have had two before the break.

After the break Conlon was in his own box playing away the danger of a visiting corner to Omar Daley some thirty five yards from his own goal. Daley went forward with his ranging stride used directly to take him past player and player. A defender lashed out a tackle that Daley skipped and Peter Thorne begged for a pass when the two City players faced only one defender whom Daley took the ball around leaving him one on one and a second later flat on his back when his shot had been saved by Pilkington’s foot from point blank range.

At that point I noticed I had not taken a breath since Conlon played the ball. Exhale and watch Daley rise to his feet and I do too. To applaud. Breathless football. Brilliant football.

The corner that comes from Daley’s short is cleared by Adam Nowland high, high and bizarrely backwards to Peter Thorne in the six yard box who executes an overhead kick into the far corner of Pilkington’s goal leaving red faces for the Magpies and defender Michael Johnson screaming for the offside that would have been the case had the return not been a piece of Steve Hodge style silliness.

All of which seemed to wake up the visitors – losing is one thing but beating yourself another – and gave them the zest to attack City’s flanks having had no joy going through McLaren and Bullock and while Kyle Nix had a quieter second half than his tricksy first he and Paul Heckingbottom stood strong. The right flank was unlocked though when Arnison left too much of a gap between him and Daley and Weston beat him delivering a pass to Richard Butcher in the box who finished well.

From then an even contest. City brought on the pace of TJ Moncur for Arnison to plug the right hand side and with ten minutes to go took Conlon off – Barry’s name was sung and he was applauded by all – and brought Michael Boulding on for his debut. Boulding got free. He took the ball into the box and lashed it across goal in a way that suggested talent and hinted at tunnel vision.

The contest though was won by the solid abilities of Matthew Clarke and the ultra-impressive Graeme Lee. Clarke’s play was reminiscent of Stuart McCall’s team mate Darren Moore who City had tried to sign in the summer instead opting for the new skipper Lee who commanded the box, cleared everything out, tackled superbly and kept the back four in line. Of all the new signings it is Lee who most impressive and he who could be the foundation of a promotion bid.

It sits with a deceptive confidence this crown of would be kings on the head for Bradford City but there – for the first time is some time – is where it sits.

What if it all goes right? Pre-season 2008/2009 [I]

Take an average of the odds you can get on Bradford City being in League Two and the Bantams are 2/1 to go up. To put that in context the bookies think that City are more likely to go up than Manchester United are to win the Premiership.

We are dealing with that level of expectation. We have that level of assured thinking around City as Stuart McCall – in second full year as the manager at Valley Parade – awaits the results of a summer rebuilding which has seen new, impressive signings come in and talk of double promotions heard.

The signing of Michael Boulding seemed to top off the rebuilding. His rejection of League One Cheltenham to come to Valley Parade was probably as geographical as it was ambition based for the player but for the club it showed the intention. To get a group of players of League One standard and trust in gravity to take us up.

Boulding is expected to partner Peter Thorne in City’s first string eleven. Thorne’s 14 goals in 31(+2) games did much to raise both City’s league finish last year and the expectations for this and the thoughtful forward seems a good foil for the speedy, tricky Boulding.

In back up Barry Conlon is able and willing and Willy Topp is promising much after flashes of skillful and smart play. If everything goes to plan then the main two strikers will be kept fresh by the others – Rory Boulding and Omar Daley also qualify – and will be notching 20+ plus each.

Much of this depends on the midfield and Paul McLaren especially who is tagged as some as the signing of the season in this league and it is started to be taken as read that he will end the year with the most assists – Thorne’s head or sharp one touch finishes and Michael Boulding’s runs being his prime routes – and be the force that takes City to promotion.

In an ideal world McLaren is what we dare to dream he is. A player with the foot in defensive abilities of Stuart McCall who passes like Peter Beagrie but no one is that good even when scaled down to League Two levels.

McLaren’s partner in the midfield will be found from Lee Bullock, Kyle Nix, and Luke Sharry and should things be going to plan the three of them will battle it out until one emerges as a perfect partner. Bullock is likely to be the first starter but both the youngsters are showing well.

Bullock was highly thought of at Hartlepool for his attacking abilities while at Bradford – well, at BfB – Nix is a favourite for his skillful and energetic displays. Sharry – young that he is – roared into pre-season and looks set for a place in the squad. He has power and a calm head.

Youngster showing well was a description of Joe Colbeck until he became player of the season and the great hope of Valley Parade. If everything goes right Colbeck will pick up where he left off at the end of last season and start giving the drive that he did at the start of 2008. He has what every young player needs – quality around him – and can find more outlets for his passing and better players to work close interplay with.

Chris Brandon is expected to be the first choice for the left wing. Huddersfield Town supporters called him a nearly man – “nearly scored with that shot, nearly did something great” – and perhaps the extra push he would need to be the exact man will come from his passion for the club. He is a City fan playing – at last – for his club.

Not playing for his club would seem to be Mark Bower who looks like he may lose out to Matthew Clarke in the contest to play alongside new skipper Graeme Lee. If we are getting promoted the two from three will develop a partnership. League Two is a division of big forwards and in Clarke and Lee we have two superb players in the air. Bower is better in possession and marks well. Clarke his a mountain of power and Lee is collected while strong.

Pauls Heckingbottom and Arnison have a remit to get down the flanks. In a great season these two will be passing their wingers often and notching assists.

Also, in a great season Rhys Evans – a late signing to the cause – will have little to do.

Finally the manager Stuart McCall use the tools of his squad to maintain constiency of the majority of the eleven while dropping in approriate changes where needed. Certainly more than any City manager since Paul Jewell his squad is their to be picked rather than having the eleven players pick themselves.

Who will be the happier?

Owen Coyle and Stuart McCall paths crossed as players during their days North of the border but the Irish player born in Scotland and the Scot born in Yorkshire never ended up on the same side and so as they faced each other as managers it is no surprise that one ended up happier than the other.

However – considering the result – one would be very surprised if it was Coyle who was more pleased as McCall watched his Bradford City team that is surely too good for League Two more than match a Championship side who have spent big in the Summer.

Spent big on Martin Patterson – £1.3m from Scunthorpe – who along with Robbie Blake were head and shoulders the best thing about the Burnley side which struggled to keep up with City in the opening exchanges.

The Bantams were approaching race trim. Rhys Evans is still a question mark in goal – his ability with crosses is the question and both visitor goals on the hour and in the last minute came when crosses got into the box and were not cut out – but the back four of Paul Arnison, an outstanding Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Paul Heckingbottom coped well with the troublesome two up front for the men from over the hills. Willy Topp – playing a full ninety minutes – and Omar Daley troubled the full backs and the middle pairing of Paul McLaren and young Luke Sharry – not looking out of place – started brightly.

However – and shamefully – rather than competing with City in the spirit of warming up for league games – Burnley resorted to physical play with Remco van der Schaaf putting in the type of tackles that would get cards in games and resulted in him being compulsorily substituted after thirty-five minutes.

Referees are told to take pre-season games as if they were full matches so where Mr G. Laws got this rule from is anyone’s guess but the validity of the game from that point on was highly dubious. In a league game Burnley would not have been able to use soft reffing to stop City’s playmaker with fouls and one doubts anyone can be proud of the Clarets for that sort of play or for the persistent handballs in the second half that killed off chances which would have gone punished in the season proper.

So City scored before half time through Barry Conlon after he coolly chipped in when capitalising on a mistake and did enough to suggest that we were far closer to the Championship level than we last season – or that Burnley are closer to League Two – and the result mattered even less than usual with the favours that were given to the team from the league higher.

McCall has Chris Brandon, Lee Bullock, Joe Colbeck and Michael Boulding to come back into this side and in McLaren he has a player so good that he has literally put his shirt on him. Ten days until the start of the season for both these clubs and McCall will be happier of the two managers.

Burnley might have had the win thanks to the favours but they were matched by the Bantams and if it turns out that both sides are League One quality then 2009/2010 could very well see this fixture played in that division.

Bump

City’s 4-0 defeat to Motherwell brought us all down to Earth. The signings and a win over Bradford Park Avenue seemed to have got City fans thinking that League Two was in the bag. A trip to a UEFA cup team saw to that and over the weekend Shrewsbury over took us at the favourites to win the league.

I liked that rush when Michael Boulding signed and I still feel it now. I’ve looked at the eleven and the sixteen that City can put out next season and the bumps of ability around the squad are impressive.

Take the midfield situation and the players like McLaren and Brandon are in and the likes of Phelan and Eddie Johnson making do are out. Tom Penford was snapped up by non-league clubs wanting to punch above their weight when he left us but we have snapped up players for League Two clubs looking to punch above.

Players like Graeme Lee who would be the most impressive name on someone else’s team are now in our team and we have a collection of these guys. You would have looked and worried cause some visitor had former Premiership players like Boulding or multi-million guys like Peter Thorne. We have a fist full of these guys. We have the best team in League Two next season.

But having the best team and playing the best football are two different things and on Wednesday night we get to see how these Bantams play against Burnley.

Rhys Evans seems to be Stuart’s first call as keeper but I’m not convinced. This is the weakness in the side as every other position fills up.

Paul Arnison at right back with Milton Turner as back up if the Guisley man can be signed. Paul Heckingbottom at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle which is strange cause I would never have thought Mark Bower should be dropped. Clarke is just too impressive and the sort of big man we need.

Joe Colbeck is sitting out the first two games but Omar Daley can and will fill in. Paul McLaren seems a shoe-in for the starting line up with Lee Bullock or Kyle Nix alongside him. I’ve not been impressed with Bullock much but McCall is and those two could be his starting midfield. Nix might be needed on the left with Chris Brandon injured.

Michael Boulding is injured too but Peter Thorne and Willy Topp will be up top on day one and if not then Barry Conlon is scoring freely in pre-season.

The way the names trip off the tongue. The way they fill the starting eleven with quality like Bower, Nix or Topp to spare. That is the indication of the quality Stuart has.

Someone once told me (It was me – Ed.) that to get promoted you get a bunch of players together who are too good for the league you are in and let gravity take you up. Gravity bounced City off the floor of football. Time for the bump back to begin.

Brilliant McCall bounces City into the season to savour

Michael Boulding has signed for City. Graeme Lee has signed for City. Paul McLaren has signed for City. Chris Brandon has signed for City. Paul Arnison has signed for City.

If the Bantams had signed two of these five players then people would have been talking about us as promotion contenders. If we had signed three of them people would be saying we were making moves but we have brought in over the summer five players of massive quality.

Five players who can play in the league above. Five players who most teams in the bottom two divisions would want in their sides.

You can argue about Arnison but he played in the play offs for the Championship last season. Boulding went out of the league but still was wanted by League One where McLaren was the top dog for assists. Lee has turned heads with his signing although Moore would have been more impressive and Brandon started the ball rolling.

Add these to Joe Colbeck ripping teams apart, to Lee Bullock who is league one quality, to Billy Topp and suddenly City have a team that can and I think will murder the rest of this league.

What Stuart has this season that he didn’t have last one is options. He can use Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding but who can say that Barry and Billy would get less goals? He can put Omar Daley down the left or he can use Kyle Nix or Chris Brandon to be tighter. In those last ten minutes that make the difference between teams that go up and those who don’t options to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition win you games.

The squad City have is packed with players who would have been the most impressive guy on most team sheets. Guys like Boulding and Lee who would have raised eyebrows separately are together in a kind of League Two all-stars picking the best of what was on offer.

And making a season to savour.

Back to the tough work as pre-season begins

Bradford City’s players returned to pre-season at the start of one of the more pressured period in the clubs history.

Under the stewardship of the club’s definitive player Stuart McCall the squad are expected to win promotion – and perhaps the odd cup – and the challenge for the same the season after.

A club that has won promotion eight time in 105 years wants to start bursting up the divisions. The feeling is the club play below their weight and the expectation on these players is that they can put an end to this underachievement.

So tasked with this Stuart McCall takes his inspiration from the best Bradford City manager there has been and like Paul Jewell he assembles a squad of senior professionals and exciting younger players.

Most of his recruits in the summer have been over or touching 30. Chris Brandon, Graeme Lee and Paul Arnison are – it is said – to be joined almost certainly Paul McLaren and perhaps also Michael Boulding joining the likes of Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock as senior players already doing laps of Applely Bridge. These are McCall’s McCalls, his Beagries, his Windasses.

Added to them is a small crop of younger players – Kyle Nix, Willy Topp and Joe Colbeck leading them – who look to be the legs and trickery of the experience.

Brandon is expected to take a left flank role opposite Colbeck and with McLaren and Bullock between them feeding the ball forward for two of Thorne, Boulding, Topp, Barry Conlon or Omar Daley. Behind them Arnison, Lee, Bower and Heckingbottom have over 1,075 career games between them. Add McLaren, Bullock, Brandon and Thorne to those and you have eight players with ust under 2,500 league games under their belts.

McCall believes that experience will get the club to achieve. He has staked his reputation on it.

For City fans are fickle from old and forgive little. The word when Stuart signed was the fear and the fear was the McCall would tarnish his position as the club’s hero on his return. Indeed twelve months into his spell in the big chair at Valley Parade criticism of McCall is audible and a recent ad hoc poll of supporters on their favourite player saw the usual winner’s place less firmly held.

Nevertheless McCall answered the call as heroes must do and now attempts his great feat – his Knight’s return – with polar opposites of cementing his place in the pantheon of players who have led on and off the field for the same club or fading away to be a memory of a player who once pounded the streets around Applely Bridge.

Will Paul Arnison solve that right back problem?

Stuart McCall is making his second signing this afternoon when Paul Arnison joins the Bantams from Carlisle on a two year deal on a free transfer to play right back as the City gaffer looks to make the deals to bring in the players he thinks can play in League One.

Arnison played his last game for Carlisle in the play-offs against Leeds and you can see what Stuart is thinking in signing players like the former Newcastle United defender and Chris Brandon who joined from Huddersfield last month. Get a team of players who are League One quality together and then you will be a team good enough for League One.

Arnison has knocked back his old club Hartlepool United who are in League One to come to Valley Parade which suggests the ambition that McCall wants in his new faces not wanting any of them to get to used to the idea of playing in the bottom division.

He comes recommended by Stuart’s old mate Greg Abbott who is number two at Carlisle and replaces Darren Williams who only was at Valley Parade for a year after replacing Darren Holloway who never really had the best of times in the position. In fact it is hard to remember the last right back City had who looked the part.

Holloway got ripped apart more by fans than by left wingers but no one would say he commanded the position. Gus Ulhlebeek was nothing to get excited about and Gunnar Halle was not the sort who stopped people going by him. In fact the last time City looked like they had a solid right back was Stephen Wright.

Wright never played in the Premiership but the change of number two was probably not as important as the guy alongside him. For the last nine years City have struggled to get a right back to look good next to David Wetherall. Wetherall was a cracking player but perhaps he never supported the man to his right enough causing this constant problem with the full back?

In football you do what the guy behind you does.  Goalkeepers tell central defenders where to stand and central defenders tell full backs and holding midfielders and Wetherall always pulled his right back too far inside giving them too much work to do to close down left wingers.  It is probably something that has stopped goals going through the middle but the result is that we have been weak on the flank.

Left wingers have a field day at Valley Parade and they cross for big centreforwards who head in passes from the left.  Paul Arnison gets to be the first right back in a decade to play alongside someone other than Wetherall.

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